I had an incredible experience earlier this week that I’m really excited to share. I was in a situation where I was expecting one thing and something completely different happened. In the space between expectation and experience, there was inspiration, love and great deal of learning.
I was invited by Fran Hunt-Jinnochi, Executive Director of the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness, to tour Ambrose Place in Edmonton. She invited a dozen of us from Vancouver Island to join her to learn about the Indigenous-informed, culturally supportive housing site which includes a managed alcohol program. She wants to start a similar program on Vancouver Island, hopefully in the capital region, and she invited us to learn and to witness.
I was expecting a conventional facility tour and a series of PowerPoint presentations with governance models and funding charts. Instead, we began on Monday evening in circle with a local elder. He shared his songs with us and spoke for three hours about the importance of connection to one’s own spirit. “Human and spirit,” he said over again in many different ways as the sage burned and the day faded to night.
Tuesday, we learned about love and how a decolonizing approach to “harm reduction” works. Carola Cunningham, the CEO and founder of Ambrose Place said about the residents, “We just keep loving them. We’re all related.” Her staff who were there to share their experiences, echoed this. A staff member shared a story of a resident who told her that he was almost 50 years old and no one had ever told him they loved him. So now every day, at the end of their one-on-one meeting she says, “I love you.”
Another staff member recounted her experience working at a hospital before coming to Ambrose Place. “The thing I love about working here is that we love our residents. When I worked at the hospital you weren’t allowed to love your patients. Here we are allowed to love them.” Another staff member told us that when she started working at Ambrose Place she had to get used to residents hugging her.
This tenderness, this Indigenous-centred, love-based approach continues through to end-of-life care. Ambrose Place was not originally set up for palliative care. Early on, one of the residents very close to death had gone to the hospital. He wanted to come home to die but they weren’t prepared. After he passed, Carola was determined that people should be able to die at home. And – just like much else that happens at Ambrose place – Carola made it so. “Now we do palliative care,” she said. “And we love people through to the spirit world.”
“In the regular system, at the hospital,” one of the staff members said, “when there’s a death and you cry, you’re seen as weak. Here we’re told, ‘Cry, let it out, tears are medicine.’ We accept our residents where they’re at. As staff we’re also accepted where we’re at.”
The longer people stay at Ambrose place, the more opportunity they have for sobriety, the closer their trauma comes to the surface. The residents work through their trauma in ceremony, in circle, and with an “Elders Review” – a practice where they walk through their lives chronologically with an elder and decide which parts they are ready to work on. What’s truly moving is that the trauma work doesn’t stop with the residents. Carola has created a social enterprise catering service and she uses the money to reinvest in trauma support for her staff.
Ambrose Place is remarkable. And it’s working. As it turns out, love and a decolonizing approach are saving the Alberta government a lot of money. In the first two years they were open, they saved $7 million in health care costs. Their residents have reduced their hospital days by about 90%. There has been a significant decrease in mental health and addictions emergency room visits. And this takes only health care into consideration. There’s currently a study underway to quantify the savings in policing and the justice system.
Niginan Housing Ventures, which runs Ambrose Place, has big plans for what’s next. Ninety-three percent of kids in care in Alberta are Indigenous. So Niginan is going to create a building for kids and parents together. Instead of removing the kids from their parents, they’ll remove the parents – but only to another part of the building. They’ll have “kookums” (grandmothers) and elders around to care for and love the children as well. By keeping everyone under one roof, they’ll ensure that the kids stay connected to their parents until the parents are ready to move back into a suite with their children.
A disproportionate number of people experiencing homelessness in Victoria are Indigenous. A disproportionate number of Indigenous children are in care in this country. Conventional approaches are not working to address these issues and are likely just making them worse. My key takeaway – and my reflection to the group in our closing circle – is that the decolonizing practices and loving ways of Ambrose Place have the power to transform the whole health and housing system, if only we are open to new ways of knowing.