New Indigenous Youth Council will improve supports for homeless people in London

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For years, Vincent Bressette slept in bus shelters and alleyways around London.

Today, the 24-year-old is using his experience to bring positive change to Indigenous youth trying to find safe places to live in the southwestern Ontario city.

He is part of a new Indigenous youth council that runs Youth Opportunities Unlimited, which identifies and removes barriers to culturally appropriate care.

According to the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, Indigenous people in cities across Canada experience homelessness at a disproportionately higher rate than non-Indigenous people. The council is part of a larger research project at Western University aimed at preventing the end of youth homelessness.

For Bressette, from the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, serving on the youth council is a top priority.

“It’s definitely one of those things that helps me keep my mind straight and focused, get on with my day. I have something to look forward to, something to do and something to do,” a- he declared.

Without a place to sleep, Vincent Bessette slept on this cement slab just a few years ago before finding accommodation through Youth Opportunities Unlimited in London. (Michelle Both/CBC)

But the work is not always easy. Sharing difficult experiences and proposing ideas for change evokes a lot of emotions. Disturbing incidents of racism and prejudice are just some of the obstacles he said he faced on the streets for nearly a decade, leaving him feeling disconnected from the community.

“No matter how polite or good your manners, you will always receive criticism just for being indigenous,” he said.

But these experiences are now being used as fuel for change.

“It just gives such a sense of hope”

Even after meeting only a handful of times, the group of around 10 young people are already making an impact.

“It was absolutely amazing,” said Sarah Palmer, Youth Development Advisor at YOU and one of the project’s researchers.

“We have these amazing discussions about their experiences, and it always ends on a high note,” she said. “It just gives such a sense of hope, and it’s really empowering to be able to talk with young people about their experiences and figure out what changes can be made right now to make things better for others.”

After hearing how a young person felt emotionally drained after being interrupted during a smudging ceremony and having to answer cultural questions on a regular basis, the group created posters to hang around the shelter to explain smudging and the Specific First Nations near London so others can take a few. minutes to read the responses instead, Palmer said.

A sign indicates that smudges are welcome in the multipurpose room
The Aboriginal Youth Council saw the need for more cultural education, so posters were created to hang at the YOU Centre. (Submitted by Youth Opportunities Unlimited)

Paisley Murphy, 20, vividly remembers the stress of finding accommodation before ending up at the YOU shelter.

For her, joining the council is a chance to reconnect with her aboriginal heritage as well as to fight against homelessness. She said she was not in contact with her Aboriginal biological father.

“I’m excited to delve deeper and learn more about my culture and how the scars of colonialism still impact people today,” Murphy said. “I want to see a world where Indigenous peoples don’t have to suffer at the hands of colonialism.”

A person wearing a cardigan and toque stands in an alley full of graffiti
After living in a shelter for more than three months, Paisley Murphy sees the Native Youth Council as a way to “address native homelessness” and connect to her heritage, she says. (Michelle Both/CBC)

Right now they are thinking, setting goals and deciding their direction, she said.

Creating a Safer Space for Indigenous Youth

Rachel Radyk, a nurse and member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation, said Indigenous people too often face violence and stereotypes in accessing services.

She first joined the project through an Indigenous Research Fellowship at Western University and stayed. She sees the project as a way to train young leaders and create safer spaces for Indigenous youth.

A woman smiles with pearl earrings and long brown hair
Rachel Radyk says that too often Indigenous people face violence and stereotypes in accessing services. She joined the project as part of Western University’s Head and Heart Indigenous Research Fellowship. (Submitted by Rachel Radyk)

“I think it’s so important to recognize the experiences and knowledge of our young people and the power they have as a younger generation of leaders,” she said.

“I think it’s so important to be able to accompany these young people on this journey so that we can create an environment that allows them to continue to grow as leaders.”

This is true for Bressette. Since finding accommodation, he has taken on more leadership roles and wants to see the council grow, he said.

“I am now in a place where I feel safe. I feel like I have a home,” he said. “When I can feel safe at home, I feel like I can go out and try to feel safe in the community.”

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