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Blazing a trail for the homeless to reach services

Asking for help is an extremely difficult thing to do. But when someone’s cry of help is met with barriers – with discrimination – with racism, it sends a message.  

Lea-lah and Cheyanne crop WEB SIZE.jpgIt tells them that maybe they don’t deserve help. And it gives them shame for who they are. 

But the Snuneymuxw First Nation’s outreach workers with the Wrapping of Blankets program are working to change that. 

Lea-lah and Cheyanne, known as “The kind ladies in red coats” by their clients, are blazing the trail to services for an often-underserved segment of the homeless population.  

With support from United Way British Columbia – working with communities in BC’s Interior, Lower Mainland and Central & Northern Vancouver Island (UWBC) through funding from the Government of Canada’s Reaching Home: Canada’s Homelessness Strategy, they provide culture-based meals, harm reduction kits, survival gear and more to their clients. 

But they are also doing the work of breaking through racism and stigma so that, when their clients ask for help, they get it. 

“For me, it’s an everyday experience, racism,” says Lea-lah, who is Indigenous. “It’s just part of my normal, right … I can walk away … It is draining, but it’s part of our lives, right? We have to endure it in order to get the services that we need. And we have to break those barriers to change the outlook for other organizations.” 

As an outreach worker, Lea-lah says she’s encountered various barriers when trying to support her clients. Sometimes it’s because they are on reserve or from a reserve, or her motives are questioned if the person she is trying to help is a relation of hers. 

Getting clients assessed with the Vulnerability Assessment Tool (the VAT, which is often used to determine how quickly someone can access housing and other supports) has also been difficult, she says. 

“When we talk to our clients that are Indigenous, we ask them about reaching out to certain organizations, and a lot of the time the response is, ‘Oh, I’ve been there and I’ve tried that but nobody followed up with more,’ or, ‘I didn’t feel a welcoming, kind vibe,” says Cheyanne.  

Lea-lah says she feels there continues to be stigma around on reserve members, and the idea that they must already have access to lots of funding. 

“I think there is still that stigma that Natives get everything for free and we don’t have to pay for anything,” she says. “No, we don’t have an abundance of money.” 

“So we’ve been just doing our best to break those barriers, like getting the VAT testing, and getting treatment for some clients, or getting them to detox and stuff, and clothes. Everything is a barrier, but we are trying our best to break through them,” says Lea-lah. “It’s been a mental challenge, but in the end we get the best reward if we can get some of our clients help and off the street.” 

Despite these problems, Lea-lah and Cheyanne say a key part of their success has been partnerships with other organizations and learning who and which orgs are most willing to provide support. 

Being successful at that sometimes means having Cheyanne, who is not Indigenous, reach out to organizations. 

“The Indigenous population really naturally navigate to our Indigenous [outreach] coordinator, and the partners navigate to the non-Indigenous [outreach coordinator],” notes Marina White, a health manager with the Snuneymuxw First Nation, overseeing the outreach program. “The girls figured that out quite quickly.” 

Infusing their work with Indigenous culture and providing some understanding to support services has been another key aspect of their work. 

“I try to introduce the cultural piece in saying, ‘OK, as an Indigenous person, this is how I feel coming to see you guys,’” says Lea-lah. “We had an incident with the COVID team when one of our clients was in a spiritual trance during our ritual season, our celebration season during the winter months. And I told them that they needed to give her a few minutes to come down from whatever she was experiencing.” 

Cheyanne, who has a degree in Indigenous studies, says she feels there is much more learning to be done on the part of various support services to understand more about what it means to be Indigenous in Canada. 

“Cultural competency is something I would like to see in every agency. I know that there is a lot of stigma and there is a lot of stereotyping, and just a big misunderstanding of what has happened with colonialism, and how it’s impacted multiple generations of Indigenous people,” says Cheyanne. 

Sitting down and listening to the stories of their homeless clients is another key aspect of their work, says Lea-lah. And that starts with something that anyone can do – asking the person about where their home community is, where they are from and about their family. 

Often, for Lea-lah, that’s a way to establish a connection with the person. Her family may even have some connection to their client’s family. 

But it’s also about acknowledging strength, she says. 

“It gives them back their power. We are such resilient people … Even though they were homeless, and even if they were in foster care, they kind of know where they are coming from … what reserve they came from. And that’s belonging somewhere, and that’s what they’ve needed – to belong somewhere, and to have a place that they call home, even though it wasn’t their home.” 

But the racism that their clients experience can strip them of that pride, too. Cheyanne and Lea-lah work to give that back to them. 

“We had a few clients that are Indigenous, they were scared to tell us that they are Indigenous.” 

“[These people are saying] ‘I don’t feel safe to tell you who I really am.’” 

“From my experience, I can tell [who is] Indigenous and not. [I asked one client], ‘So what community are you from?’ and she looked at me and said, ‘I actually don’t know, I didn’t care my whole life.’” 

“It’s sad, and I kind of gave her a hug, and I said, ‘I’m a safe person.’” 

“To give them that security, that this is a safe spot and thanks for sharing … She was shocked that I knew that she was Indigenous. For me, it was very heart wrenching, because she’s not the only one out there that doesn't know where she comes from and is not proud. I get that, because I don’t look Indigenous … For me, I’ve had a core of family teachings and growing up with a grandmother that gave me the environment to help give others that voice to be proud of who they are and where they come from.” 

The issues Lea-lah and Cheyanne are trying to address are huge. They are proud of the work they are doing, and happy to see their clients succeed. 

United Way British Columbia is proud to be able to support this work, which is only possible through the help of donors like you. Please, if you can, consider donating today to support programs like this in your community. 

If you are in need of help, please call 2-1-1, and a bc211 Navigator will direct you to supports near you.