Home Fire: an Indigenous housing story

Nolan at home
Nolan at home

Home Fire is an Indigenous Housing First program for youth ages 16 to 24 who have experienced or are at risk of homelessness. With a focus on harm reduction and reconnection with culture, this scattered-site housing program offered by Trellis Society (Trellis) aims to house youth in the community of their choice.

The Orion building in Beltline, owned by HomeSpace Society and operated by Trellis, offers 11 homes out of its 32 units as part of the Home Fire program.

Nolan, 23, and his younger brother, have been residents of Orion in the Home Fire program since October 2023.

Nolan was born and raised in Edmonton. He lived in a townhouse in the suburbs with his mother, stepfather and eight siblings. He describes his childhood as “terrible” having experienced family violence and mental health issues throughout the years and bullying at school.

After high school, Nolan worked in the food industry, making Bannock burgers for an Indigenous-owned food service company. He and his brother shared an apartment with a roommate but were evicted after their roommate stopped contributing to the monthly rent.

“Every month, me and my brother were on top of paying our rent, paying for groceries, and paying bills,” says Nolan. “We were trying to be responsible. We didn’t know [our roommate] wasn’t paying his share until we got the eviction notice. Housing is expensive, you know. It sucked.”

Without a place to call home in the city, Nolan and his brother spent a year with some of their family on a reserve before they were referred to the housing program through a triage system managed by the Calgary Homeless Foundation.

Tandi Purych is Program Manager for Trellis’ Home Fire program. Tandi and all her employees are Indigenous, which is core to the program’s success.

“My grandma went to residential school,” Tandi continues. “My staff and I all resonate with that intergenerational trauma piece and the healing that needs to happen. We’re not a surface level housing program.”

Many of the youths in the program came from foster care. Many are not aware of their Indigenous background and do not have connections to their communities.

“We recognize where these kids come from. There’s a level of understanding that we walk with but also makes this work a lot harder,” adds Tandi. “You have to be a certain amount of healed to do this work.”

As part of the program, elders come to the building to facilitate sharing circles and teach Indigenous youth about their history and cultures.

“It is great to have elders come here and teach us, because a lot of that history gets lost,” says Nolan. “We need to get back to our roots and remember. It’s part of our healing. They also bring us places. I recently went to a sweat lodge. I’m still going through mental health issues, so it was great to be able to get back to that spirituality again, sweat it out, get all that negative energy out and come back feeling like a whole new person.”

The program also enables the youths to work on their goals. Nolan’s experiences with bullying and other issues during high school robbed him of his ability to focus on his grades at the time. Now while living at Orion, Nolan is hard at work upgrading his high school diploma to gain the prerequisites to achieve his goal of getting into an Information Technology (IT) program at either Bow Valley College or SAIT Polytechnic.

“I love the idea of getting an education because I notice most families that I know don’t have a long-term plan for themselves, so they end up getting stuck in this loop,” says Nolan. “They will have a job but it’s not enough to build a life for their kids. If I ever have kids, I want to make sure I have something for them. I’m trying to break that cycle and build wealth for future generations.”

When Nolan isn’t focusing on school, he enjoys drawing and making art. A Japanese-inspired painting by Nolan hangs in Tandi’s office. He explained the three meanings behind it:

“The Yin Yang is the balance of life. There’s good and bad, then there’s good in the bad, and bad in the good. Everything requires balance. And then the red sun is very significant because every day we wake up to the sun, and it’s a new day, a fresh start, new hope. And then with the Koi fish, there’s a fable about these fish swimming up the waterfall. It’s hard because the pressure of the water is bringing them down, but they kept going anyway and eventually when they reach to the top, they became dragons and fly out from the top of the waterfall. No matter how hard life is, you just keep going. One day you’ll get there, and you’ll evolve, you’ll become the dragon. That’s why I painted that because it’s very inspirational and the meanings behind it are very important.”

Nolan went on to liken Trellis to the story of the fish overcoming the waterfall.

In October 2023, three non-profit affordable housing providers, including Trellis, were awarded parcels of City-owned land to create an estimated 100 new affordable homes for Calgarians, as part of The City’s third non-profit land sale. Land acquired in Bowness will enable Trellis to expand their housing programming.

Home Fire: From an Indigenous perspective, the concept for the program name symbolizes the heart of community, embodying notions of home, family, culture, and identity. It signifies coming home to a physical home but also coming home to culture.

Housing First: A recovery-oriented approach to ending homelessness that centers on quickly moving people experiencing homelessness into housing and then providing additional supports and services as needed.

Harm Reduction: An approach or strategy aimed at reducing the risks and harmful effects associated with substance use and addictive behaviours for the individual and the community.

Trellis: A structure used to support trees or climbing plants as they grow.

Categories: Affordable housing, Equity, Indigenous, Mental health, Youth