Indigenous supported housing in the North
Reprinted from the Supported Housing issue of Visions Journal, 2017, 12 (3), p. 36
For many years, the only Friendship Centre adult housing program in Prince George was Ketso Yoh, a shelter and halfway house for men. In 2009, the Friendship Lodge and Tse’ Koo Huba Yoh opened their doors and with Ketso Yoh formed what is now Prince George Native Friendship Centre’s Adult Residential Services program. Tse’ Koo Huba Yoh is for women, and Friendship Lodge is co-ed.
All the buildings are run on a principle of acceptance—of the individuals, their families and their diverse cultures and belief systems. Elders and spiritual advisors of the Friendship Centre offer workshops and emotional and cultural support. They also lead traditional practices—such as smudging, pipe ceremonies and sweats at a nearby sweat lodge—which all tenants are welcome to attend.
Tse’ Koo Huba Yoh—A safe haven for women
Since 2009, Tse’ Koo Huba Yoh has been home for more than 130 of the most vulnerable women in our community. Many are struggling with the residual effects of the Residential School System, broken relationships, abuse, addictions and a low level of education and employment. They are often facing mental health challenges; support and understanding are key to their being able to manage their daily life and well-being. Staff plays an important supportive role, providing reminders and encouragement until the individual can care for her own health.
Tse’ Koo Huba Yoh means “women’s home” in the Carrier language. We understand this literally: there are no men within the walls of Tse’ Koo Huba Yoh, except if building maintenance is required and the maintenance staff is male. Upon entering the building, people can feel the energy shift—to an atmosphere of serenity and calm.
Our location in downtown Prince George has been both a blessing and a challenge. Many health supports are within walking distance, but the routes are populated by people who present the sort of negative influences our tenants are trying to avoid. The women tell us that no matter what is going on outside, they truly feel safe once they are within the walls of Tse’ Koo Huba Yoh.
It’s a blessing to watch residents bring friends and family into the building and introduce them to staff and other tenants. They tour through the common areas first, saving their uniquely decorated suites for last. The pride our ladies take in their environment speaks to the importance of Tse’ Koo Huba Yoh being not just a house, but a home.
For many, Tse’ Koo Huba Yoh is a stepping stone to living at Friendship Lodge, where residents live more independently. At Tse’ Koo Huba Yoh, life skills workers are on-site and available 24 hours a day to help residents make positive choices about drugs, alcohol, personal hygiene, education and employment. Another Prince George Native Friendship Centre program, the Native Healing Centre, helps us host weekly workshops on communication tools, the cycle of addiction and techniques for being mindful and dealing with stress in a healthy way. The counsellors at the Native Healing Centre help residents move from a place of fear and anger to one of acceptance and self-love.
Tse’ Koo Huba Yoh staff members work to ensure all women feel valued and connected, celebrating individual successes, holidays and birthdays. It isn’t unusual for a new tenant to say, “I’ve never celebrated my birthday before” or “I haven’t had anyone notice my birthday since I was a child.” Attending group therapy sessions is the only mandatory part of our programming. Although many are reluctant to share their personal stories at first, they soon realize they are in a safe place and open up.
Unlike many other transitional supported housing programs, Tse’ Koo Huba Yoh does not limit how long tenants can stay. Our goal is to make sure our ladies feel confident in their ability to live independently before they move out on their own. Sometimes a woman is ready to move out after a few months, and sometimes it takes three or four years. A favourite poster on display in the house pictures a turtle and the words “Your speed doesn’t matter; forward is forward.”
Lisa has been living at Tse’ Koo Huba Yoh for three years. She tells us:
I’ve learned how to like myself and trust my own decisions. I learned a lot about boundaries and can even say “no” to people now without feeling bad, and I could never do that before. I’m happy that I was given the opportunity to live at Tse’ Koo, and I think there should be more places like this in our community.
In All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes, Maya Angelou reminds us that “the ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”1 The physical, emotional and spiritual safety of our residents is fundamental to their successful transition to a healthier, stable life. When housing, food, safety and—most importantly— unconditional acceptance by others are assured, the women can focus on their path forward.
Friendship Lodge—Home is where the support is
When the Prince George Native Friendship Centre embarked on a mission to open Friendship Lodge, there were concerned community members. Through an open dialogue with community that addressed concerns, zoning was approved and the Friendship Lodge was established.
The Friendship Lodge offers 30 units of supported housing. These units are intended for single adults who are homeless or at risk of being homeless. Although the building has many Aboriginal tenants, applicants are not assessed on their race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, political beliefs, religion, marital status, physical or mental disability, gender, sexual orientation, age or criminal convictions. Instead, the application process takes into account factors such as income, need and suitability. The aim of the Friendship Lodge is to provide affordable, safe, home-like and supportive housing for the community’s most vulnerable members.
As the coordinator of social housing at the Friendship Lodge, I have witnessed the evolution of the building and the community it houses. One of the lessons our tenants have taught me is that people have a strong need to feel that they belong. I also believe that people need to have a home of their own in order to work on their spiritual, emotional, physical and mental well-being. Having such a home empowers them, and they begin the healing journey. As healing continues, they begin to contribute to society with the new skills they have learned—skills that those of us who have not faced the same challenges often take for granted.
Friendship Lodge residents pay rent, and each one-bedroom suite is fully independent with a kitchen, washroom and living room. The building has free laundry, and life skills workers assist residents in any area of their lives that needs strengthening. For example, if a tenant is running low on food and doesn’t know where to go for help, staff will refer the tenant to a food bank. Staff can also help by providing directions or explaining bus routes.
The fenced courtyard of the lodge functions as a peaceful gathering place, with lots of seating areas and plantings; staff and tenants take it upon themselves to keep the area watered and pruned. The building also has a communal kitchen that is used regularly for community dinners, where all tenants are welcome to share a meal. An indoor lounge is also available to tenants and their guests.
Staff encourage tenants to participate in healthy activities, both in the lodge and outside in the community. Elders and spiritual advisors of the Prince George Native Friendship Centre offer workshops and emotional and cultural support. If a tenant expresses the desire to participate in a smudge or a sweat, for example, our cultural advisors facilitate his or her participation. We encourage other community support programs, such as those provided by Northern Health, to engage with Friendship Lodge residents in their home and to work as a team with the Friendship Lodge life skills workers.
Friendship Lodge tenant Juanita was recently in the office to learn the bus route to her new job. I asked her if she would be willing to share her thoughts about the Friendship Lodge. She told me, “It’s a good place for me to be right now. I think I would be lost if I didn’t have this place. I feel safe here, and nobody can get in if I don’t want them to. I can say ‘no’ if I want.”
The Prince George Native Friendship Centre—Supporting community
The Prince George Native Friendship Centre has been successful at establishing several safe, affordable, supportive housing options in the Prince George community. Although residents each face their own unique challenges, there is an underlying respect for one another and the buildings that house them. Strong support systems have developed through the journey of living safer, happier lives.
Our goal is to assist our residents to achieve their goals for a healthier life, and to provide as safe an environment as possible to support that growth and healing.
About the authors
Jackie is the Coordinator of the Prince George Native Friendship Centre’s Friendship Lodge in Prince George, a supported housing unit
Christine has worked with the Prince George Native Friendship Centre since 2002 and is currently Program Coordinator for Tse’ Koo Huba Yoh, one of the centre’s supported housing complexes. Christine also facilitates a program in applied suicide intervention skills for staff of the Prince George Native Friendship Centre and other community agencies
Angelou, M. (1986). All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes. Virago. p. 196.