June 28, 2022
If you live in Vancouver, you’ve probably seen the temporary modular housing (TMH) buildings that have been constructed across the city over the past five years. These modular buildings are placed temporarily on city-owned land or sites awaiting redevelopment, with the aim of rapidly providing urgently needed housing for people experiencing homelessness.
One thing sets the New Beginnings TMH apart from the rest—a newly constructed teepee.
New Beginnings is home to around 52 Indigenous residents (participants), who live there for anywhere from six months to over three years. The modular apartment building, operated by Lu’ma Native Housing Society, offers a safe home for people who have recently experienced homelessness. While living in the building, participants receive support from Lu’ma staff to access supportive services, begin a healing process, reconnect with family and culture, and work towards transitioning into permanent housing.
After working closely with New Beginnings staff and participants over the past three years, our team was lucky enough to attend both the building of the teepee, and the building’s celebration on National Indigenous People’s Day. The teepee is the latest in a series of cultural programming initiatives that Lu’ma has conducted at New Beginnings.
Cultural connections are key to wellbeing
Although the housing is temporary, community events and activities can go a long way in helping people to feel at home in an unfamiliar building (and often, neighbourhood). Research shows that by approaching housing through a wellbeing lens, we can improve participant recovery, create better health outcomes, and reduce the likelihood of people re-experiencing homelessness. For Indigenous participants especially, feeling connected to one’s culture is a foundational element of the healing process.
The new teepee is located in the common garden in front of the New Beginnings building, a community space that has been shaped and built by the residents living there. The teepee also celebrates the “temporary” aspect of modular housing in a way that reflects Indigenous practices, as traditionally many Indigenous structures are flexible and designed to be moved according to the seasons.
“The teepee is so special, because we are the only modular housing that has one,” said Ana, a New Beginnings staff member. “It really gives us a sense of identity and meaning.”
Building the teepee
The teepee was built by Tony Solomon from Mukwa Teepees, a local business based in Abbotsford. Participants at New Beginnings come from nations across Canada, reflecting a wide range of Indigenous cultures and traditions. Solomon follows traditional Anishinabe teepee design.
On May 25, Solomon arrived with all the materials needed for the teepee, including poles made of lodgepole pine that he harvested himself. After lining the poles up together, he helped participants pick the right poles for different functions. This was a learning process for many of the staff and participants, who will be in charge of taking down and moving the teepee when the need arises to relocate. While Solomon made the work look easy, he explained that a teepee is a tensile structure: it’s easy to put up if you know how to do it, but will feel hard if you are using the wrong technique. With care, he showed participants how to select and erect the poles, to ensure they are level and aligned correctly, and how to tie them together.
After building the teepee, Lu’ma staff and residents hosted a small feast, a traditional way to mark the construction of a new teepee. The teepee is just one of many ways that the incredible Lu’ma staff have been working to implement cultural design features and programming at the New Beginnings building.
“Once we painted the shelter with the medicine wheel colors and put up the teepee, the [outdoor garden] really transformed into a community space,” said Shawna, Program Manager at New Beginnings.
Cultural programming initiatives at New Beginnings
Many participants at New Beginnings are currently far from their families, and may experience social isolation or feel disconnected from their culture. Recognizing the positive impact cultural and social connections can have on participant wellbeing, Lu’ma staff have been working hard to implement Indigenous cultural programming for the building’s residents, including community barbecues, sewing and drum-making workshops, and a community garden where participants grow Indigenous plants.
“The teepee brings together the building and the space to give a sense of togetherness, said Tim, a New Beginnings management staff. “Talking circles have been taking place in the teepee and other events like a pipe ceremony are also planned.”
On June 21, National Indigenous People’s Day, Lu’ma staff organized a celebratory event with the building’s participants, inviting Elders, neighbours, and members of the wider community. Participants also invited friends and family, and were excited to show off the teepee and the community garden space.
Some members of the local community attended, enjoying the food and chatting with people living in the building and other attendees. The wider participation from the community was significant in light of the initial pushback from the local community in the early stages of planning the temporary modular housing. As highlighted in Happy Cities’ recent Solutions Lab report on wellbeing in modular housing, community spaces and events can help encourage interaction between TMH participants and their neighbours and reduce social stigma, while maintaining a sense of safety for participants and building trust within the community.
“Our pathways can be difficult in life, and it can be hard to stay on the right path,” said Elder Donna Lamb, whose spiritual name is Helping Hands Woman. “It is okay to ask for help.”
She added that organizations like Lu’ma are crucial to supporting people transitioning out of homelessness, as they provide not only the essentials for success—things like hot meals and a roof overhead—but also a sense of community.
“This is a community, and it is about helping each other,” she said.
Above all, building trust is crucial for building community. Lu’ma Native Housing Society draws on cultural programming as a key way to build trust between participants, staff, and the wider community. Recognizing the success of cultural activities, Lu’ma has recently hired an Indigenous Cultural Health Coordinator to support staff in offering culturally safe opportunities for participants.
Expanding access to cultural activities in rapid housing
As evidence on how cultural connections support wellbeing grows, housing operators will need greater access to low-barrier grants and permanent funding for such initiatives. The other key ingredient is staff dedication. New Beginnings building has an incredible team of staff who work hard to meet the needs of participants, in a job that can be incredibly difficult—emotionally, physically, and mentally. The cultural activities have the added benefit of not only boost participant wellbeing, but also staff wellbeing, which is essential to the success of TMH.
Lu’ma participants and staff have created a wonderful community space, which will continue to support better communication, meaning, and trust-building within the community. And when the New Beginnings building is ready to be relocated, they will bring their teepee along with them to the new location.
Lu’ma’s cultural programming initiatives were initially funded through a Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) Solutions Lab grant, and the teepee was funded by BC Housing.