New transitional housing in Brandon for homeless Indigenous women welcomes 1st resident

A new first-of-its-kind safe house in Brandon that will offer supportive programming for Indigenous women who are at high risk due to homelessness opened its doors last week.

Chelsea’s House is named for Chelsea Cote, 35, a chronically homeless Indigenous woman who died in February from what is believed to be toxic drug poisoning.

The first person to move into the seven-bed supportive housing unit is Danette Hanmore, 38, a relative of Cote’s.

Hanmore says she had given up on finding a place after living on and off the streets for years. As she was growing up, her family bounced around different cities in Canada. She and her children eventually settled in Brandon.

It can be hard when you can’t find stable housing, she said.

“People don’t feel safe,” said Hanmore.

She also feels Chelsea’s House can help everyone in the community by showing women they are valued, loved and respected.

“If you show love, you know how far you get,” she said. “That’s all that worked for me, was somebody showed me just a little bit of love, and it taught me to love myself again.”

Since January 2023, the city of 54,000 has recorded 284 Indigenous women experiencing homelessness — a rise of about 122 per cent since 2020, according to Brandon’s Homelessness Individuals Families Information System, a database that tracks homelessness in the city.

Since 2020, at least 12 Indigenous women who used homelessness services in Brandon have died, according to HIFIS, but the database cautions the actual number is likely higher.

A woman sits on a porch.
Brandon Action Research on Chronic Homelessness project lead researcher Megan McKenzie says Chelsea’s House is designed to keep unhoused Indigenous women safe. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

That shows why Chelsea’s House is needed in the southwestern Manitoba city, says Megan McKenzie, lead researcher with Brandon’s Action Research on Chronic Homelessness, also known as the ARCH project.

ARCH has partnered with the Manitoba Métis Federation’s Housing First program to operate the supportive housing, using federal funding.

McKenzie says since her research project began in November, it’s had 102 interviews with unhoused Brandonites. Those interviews include two women who died during the study period.

“If they don’t get the support and the help that they need, they could be the next murdered and missing Indigenous women,” McKenzie said.

Chelsea’s House is one of seven ARCH pilot projects, which McKenzie said aim to prevent that.

“[We] are hearing from the women that if they have these supports that they are safer and that they will do better,” she said.

“We should be able to prevent their murders or their [going] missing if we provide the support and help they need.”

‘A new lease on life’

The house that is now home to Chelsea’s House had in the past been referred to as “Meth Mansion,” according to Samantha van den Ham, Housing First’s program manager.

Last year, the address had 30 calls for service, she said.

Van den Ham said it has historically been a trap house — a house where trafficking of drugs, sex or other illegal activities happen — and was known to many of the people ARCH interviewed.

Before renovations it was covered with graffiti. Its windows were broken and the interior of the house had been destroyed.

A woman stands in front of a house being renovated.
Housing First program manager Samantha van den Ham says Chelsea’s House will have seven transitional rooms available along with 24/7 staff support. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

ARCH and Housing First wanted to transform the space to show change is possible in Brandon, McKenzie said.

The three-storey house has had a full renovation, she said.

“It’s a nice clean, safe environment for our folks, and it’s close to resources and it’s close to the supports and the other things that the community needs,” McKenzie said.

“We’re hoping that we’re going to give a new lease on life to this house, as well as to the women who are going to be moving in here.”

The first people moving in are a group of older women who can act as “aunties and grandmas” to “help create a nice home environment and a safe environment for the other women who come,” McKenzie said.

Women have been asking for support and connection to culture, to learn new life skills, and to have people they can talk with who have life experience and understand them, McKenzie said. All of that has been incorporated into Chelsea’s House, along with 24/7 staff support, she said.

The transitional housing has temporary funding, but the hope is to secure ongoing funding and potentially develop a space for overnight drop-in clients.

Women can request a referral to stay in the house through Housing First. After an intake and referral are done, and as rooms become available, they can move in.

If Hanmore has her say, Chelsea’s House will be a safe place for anybody who needs it. She envisions it being a community where people can stop by, relax and enjoy a meal she’s freshly cooked.

She wants to help guide how the house operates, because she knows first-hand what the community needs to heal, she said. 

“Once they figure out how they’re going to run it, maybe it’ll be different,” Hanmore said. “I hope I get a say in it a little bit because … they brought me in there for a reason, right?”