Homelessness and Wellness

Homelessness is an issue that I hear a lot about at the doors in Ward 11, especially in the Mill Creek area. There are more homeless campsites in the Mill Creek ravine and river valley and people are camping out longer in the year.

Issues of homelessness, poverty, and housing are not unique to the inner city. Because of these concerns, I spoke out about the proposed Inner City Wellness Plan at City Council’s Executive Committee on Tuesday, July 4. Here are my speaking points.


My name is Keren Tang and I am a public health policy analyst and work in health promotion to serve diverse communities, including the homeless, with whom I have experience at a Native Friendship Centre some time ago. I hold a Master’s in Health Promotion from the University of Alberta, and I am currently the President of the Edmonton Multicultural Coalition, an organization based in the heart of the McCauley neighbourhood.

I am here to share my ideas on how an Inner City Wellness Plan can build upon and strengthen Edmonton’s existing services, facilities, and neighbourhood relationships.  Firstly, the City’s approach to an Inner City Wellness Plan needs to be centered around the experiences of health for inner city community members; and secondly, it needs to be rooted in relationships.

To my first point, it is essential that we think of service users as community members.

  • To understand this, we can look to the example of Ambrose Place, a permanent supportive housing complex in the inner city guided by an Aboriginal worldview. From what I saw, it is a wellness centre in and of itself. Housing is a major aspect, of course, but so are spirituality, employment, and income. Ambrose Place approaches health through a life course perspective—not simply serving people as one-time drop-in clients, but supporting them over the long-term by focusing on the overall health of these inner city community members.
  • And that’s what the service users are, members of the community, whether or not they have a roof over their heads. Homeowners, tenants, street-involved individuals, non-profit service providers and businesses are all legitimate members of the community and all are feeling the impact of poverty in different ways.  
  • So, while we deliberate about whether we want centralized or decentralized services, let’s not forget those who would be most impacted by policy change.


Ambrose Place; Photo by Keren Tang

  • And when I think of a wellness centre, I think about the inspiring example of Anishnawbe Health Toronto. This health centre complements western medicine with traditional Aboriginal healing. Not only does it have a medical clinic, it also has an on-site sweat lodge with traditional healers, youth programs, pre- and post-natal support, employment counselling, and housing programs.
  • What struck me the most about this health centre was the scope of healing, from physical and mental to emotional and spiritual. It addressed the social determinants of health, from housing, employment, and income, to early childhood development, education, and social support.
  • Integrated service centres like this one have become models of healing for many cities. They are community hubs, sorely needed in our inner city where agencies and services often operate in isolation. Again, they see their service users as community members.

To my second point, perhaps the most important outcome of creating a Community Wellness Centre for Edmonton is relationship-building.

  • This Inner City Wellness Plan needs the involvement of all community members. Meaningful engagement can strengthen existing relationships among service agencies, the people they serve, Chinatown and neighbouring community members, community leagues, and business improvement associations.
  • The foundation of an effective wellness plan, therefore, would be forging relationships around common interests, such as neighbourhood cleanliness and pride, or food security. Downtown Proud, Meet Me in McCauley, neighbourhood gardens, and Ambrose Place mobilizing its residents to help with needle pick up—these are just some of the examples that are rallying different people together and collectively contributing to community-building.
  • Clearly, businesses, community agencies, and other community members are already finding common ground; the opportunity is there to further deepen these connections.
  • We need to look at innovative approaches to forge relationships. The City and the community can play a role in facilitating that. For example, neighbourhood beautification can be a catalyst for relationship-building. Local people could be employed to pick up debris. We could better support transitions to meaningful employment for street-involved folks, many of whom were once tradespeople. We can look to the community gardens in the area as a way to enhance properties, beautify the neighbourhood, enable folks to gain volunteer experience, and attract more businesses. There are opportunities to address and re-purpose vacant and derelict properties, which can invite undesirable activity when left in a state of disrepair.
  • The linkages between local businesses, agency staff, and services users can be stronger. For example, an education campaign on the roots of poverty could target business owners and even residents, and include a tour of inner city agencies (many of which are based on the concept of wellness because of their wrap-around service model). This could facilitate understanding, giving people a chance to hear perspectives from street-involved folks first-hand. Agency staff could also learn more from the businesses in the area through community tours, some of which are already happening (e.g., Chinatown tours organized by the Edmonton Chinese Young Leaders Council). These businesses could then, if inspired, connect with people served by the agencies, teaching them about business and how to find employment.

These are merely ideas, and I recognize that many of these stakeholders are stretched thin, given their limited capacity. But my point is we should take a hard look at what we already have in the city, because we have some great examples of “wellness.” And as we move forward with a wellness centre, let’s not just base it on new facility and new programs/services, but on new relationships.

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