Holding Space for Indigenous Leadership in the Housing and Overdose Crises in Vancouver’s DTES

This project is funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and its expected launching date is fall 2020.


We acknowledge the unceded lands upon which the Downtown Eastside exists, and are grateful to the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and səl’ilwətaɁɬ] (Tseil-Waatuth) Nations for their ongoing stewardship of these lands. We also thank the members of the Indigenous Health Research Committee at the Canadian Institute of Health Research for their work in deciding the merits of our project, as well as the countless people across Turtle Island who have contributed the funds for health research through the federal government.

Host Partner

DTES SRO Collaborative Society

Community Partners

BRAVE Technology Co-op

Eastside Illicit Drinkers Group for Education

First Nations Health Authority

Megaphone Magazine

Native Women’s Association of Canada

PHS Community Services Society

Vancouver Dudes Club

Vancouver Coastal Health

Vancouver Community Aboriginal Policing Centre

Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society

Implementation Team

Samantha Pranteau (Downtown Eastside SRO Collaborative)

Rhonda Stephens (Downtown Eastside SRO Collaborative (SRO-C)

Jeff Masuda (Queen’s University)

Sarah De Leeuw (UNBC)

Margo Greenwood (UNBC, National Collaborating Centre for Indigenous Health) 

Full Summary

Our team is situated at the cutting edge of Indigenous-led organizing in the context of the housing and overdose crisis in Vancouver’s DTES. Over 5000 people, 35% of whom are Indigenous, live in squalid privately-owned Single Room Occupancy (SRO) Hotels. Conditions of severe housing violence, disrepair, and homelessness are inextricably linked to the devastating overdose mortality rates and compromised health in this community. Our team and partners constitute nearly all of the front line leadership of Indigenous and allied organizations working to penetrate SROs to deliver effective housing and harm reduction supports. But we have sustained this effort on very low levels of short term funding relative to the scale of the problem.

Our GOAL is to “hold space” for front-line Indigenous health leaders on our team, using research-informed processes to promote the sustainability of their practice. 

We have three OBJECTIVES

1) To support ourselves through trauma- and research-informed processes of cultural revitalization, healing, reflexivity, and learning; 

2) To develop insight into how such processes can improve the efficacy and sustainability of Indigenous-led housing and harm reduction organizing at the community level; 

3) To mobilize our research in ways that break down colonial public health structures that obstruct self-determined, culturally appropriate, holistic, and effective public health interventions led by Indigenous and Indigenous-serving organizations in the DTES and beyond. 

Our project builds on research that has supported the creation of SRO tenant committees that are now exerting people’s right to healthy housing against negligent landlords. Our team members also lead the nationally recognized Tenant Overdose Response Organizers (TORO) program, saving countless lives through grassroots overdose prevention within SROs. Owing to the reputation of team members Pranteau and Stephens, we have widened our circle of partners to include all the major Indigenous-led and allied organizations in the DTES, the two regional health authorities (including FNHA), and two national level Indigenous health organizations. Ironically, these team members are among the least stably supported in the collective work of this coalition. Thus, it is their self-determined aspirations and priorities upon which this grant is built. Over five years, we will implement a series of desire-based Indigenous research methodologies to confront the structures that undermine our collective effort.

Our METHODS will be participatory, emergent, flexible, guided by frontline Indigenous leaders and Elders, and grounded in the land-based teachings, ceremonies, languages, and courage in the traditions of those upon whose territory we are guests. Our activities will include land based retreats, sharing circles, research-informed organizing practices, outreach to Indigenous tenants and their neighbours, and tenant-led coalition building across the DTES. 

Our EXPECTED OUTCOMES include research-informed practices of Indigenous public health, grounded in the wisdom of the Indigenous community in the DTES and the Indigenous leaders who are on the front lines of this public health crisis. We anticipate that this project will generate insights for both community based public health practice and academic literature on the role of Indigenous-centred community organizing as an essential component of a holistic, just, and equitable approach to public health research and practice in Canada.