The hidden costs of public housing


I grew up in the public housing system, raised by my grandmother who struggled to make ends meet. Her sewing helped us get by and my papa, who lived alone, would help her out with the money he made from bootlegging.
He rebelled against the government, often complaining about its corruption and he took matters into his own hands by making a living illegally. This is just one of the many ways public housing tenants will seek their own means of income.
Some take the drastic step of involving themselves in criminal activity because the current housing system does not allow residents to get ahead financially. As a result, many families remain trapped below the poverty line.
Public housing is not supposed to be permanent. It is supposed to be a stepping stone, yet many people become stuck in it. Before housing entered our communities the Indigenous people of the North lived in tents, teepees and log cabins. They were content. The land provided everything they needed.
When housing came it divided our people, broke families apart through the separation of the household, brutishly imposed a new way of living and created a sudden loss of culture. Elders now live in old folks’ homes, rarely visited, often passing away from loneliness and the inability to maintain their physical function because they are not on the land.
Parents may not be working because they cannot afford the high costs of daycare and they don’t have their grandparents in the household to help take care of the children or to pass down important traditional values.
The men of the house often no longer hunt because they have to work to pay bills. Sometimes they totally lose their ability to hunt because their once public lands have been privatized. Indigenous people are accustomed to living together in close quarters.
Modern-day society calls this overcrowding but look closer and you’ll see that it is part of a larger support system whereby families come together to help each other.
There is a family that I know that has been living in poverty within the housing system for many years. Before housing came into their community they lived in a small shack by the water. They did not have running water or electricity, yet they had everything they needed. Once a year they would set out on a hunting trip where they would be gone for a couple of weeks.
They left most of their belongings behind and took only what they needed for surviving out in the bush. When they returned from one particular hunting trip they found a vacant, empty lot where their humble shack once stood with all of their personal, irreplaceable belongings gone with it. Their home had disappeared and it was assumed that the government was behind it.
The family lived in a tent for the next year because they had nowhere to go.
Eventually, the government built a home with running water, heat and electricity and told them they could live in it, if they paid rent. Their traditional lifestyle was ripped away from them overnight. Thirty years later, they are still fighting to get back what was originally theirs by reclaiming their land rights.
This explains the mindset of some people living in public housing today. They feel that they shouldn’t have to pay to live on their own land and often refuse to pay rent, leaving them thousands of dollars in debt.
It’s no secret that the housing authority imposes tight policy restrictions and court ordered eviction notices on tenants who are often living in condemned conditions.
They insist that tenants sign binding papers written in old English, which creates barriers that make it hard for many tenants to understand the legalities of what they are being pushed into. These persecuting mechanisms are not the answer.
The current housing system is ruthlessly flawed and operations are being carried out under archaic policies. It’s about time that it gets a complete overhaul because it is at the very root of many of the social problems we see in our communities today.
A home is supposed to serve as the solid foundation of support. Families cannot thrive in restricted systems that were designed with the sole purpose of assimilating Indigenous people into a colonial structure.
Mahsi Cho.


  1. Mahsi for this insightful piece! Totally agree about overhauling the housing system. Loneliness is a modern health epidemic that needs to be addressed through building trust and strength in communities and families ❤


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