Hit play on the video above to hear Johnny’s story.

Hidden Homelessness

During winter, you should have a clear view from this point across the snow-covered river valley, taking in the skyline of downtown Edmonton, the white, soaring arches of the Walterdale Bridge, the jagged, frozen North Saskatchewan river, and to the West of the bridge the stately dome of the Alberta Legislature built in 1907. During the winter, temperatures in this valley can go well below -30 degrees Celsius. Edmonton has the largest interconnected river valley in North America. Because it so vast and beautiful, many people experiencing homelessness sleep there. Johnny Lee is an Environmental and Social Justice Activist and here is a part of his story.

“Welcome relatives, come have a look see at my favourite room in the house.

This valley to Edmonton’s North Saskatchewan River has been a sanctuary for thousands over the years,  as it’s been mined with countless hours spent enjoying the view, the space and the time for reflection. And as indigenous and western science have proven nature’s healing effect upon mind, body and spirit, it is also my church.

Right now, I want to tell a story… a story similar to many who wind up sleeping rough outdoors in your modern-day civilization. I myself went 7 months to mid-November sleeping in a tent just down there near the riverbank, sort of like the ancestors. I even had a coyote visit my camp from time to time. However, my story, as is with many of my People, isn’t so historically romantic. Because even though street life may have afforded some measure of freedom and contentment, I was still homeless in my own homeland.

In the near 22 years since I first started down the path of what could only be called “learning through suffering”, I’ve probably had a place I could honestly call my own for only four of those years. Seven years on the street and over a decade staying with siblings for the first couple, to continually bouncing between friends and acquaintances from then on as all remaining ties to family had been severed.

This type of situation is what is known as “the hidden homeless”. And more often than not, can be even more stressful than living on the streets. Because you’re not just worrying about yourself, you’re also constantly worried about being an imposition to the people you’re staying with even though you might be paying them, or perhaps sometimes depending on the kind of friends… becoming a target for exploitation.”

In Edmonton around 2,700 people experience chronic homelessness, and an estimated 20,400 households are or are in danger of being part of the “hidden homeless”. Even though only 5% of Edmonton’s population is Indigenous, almost 50% of those experiencing homeless are Indigenous like Johnny.

The next stop looks at the history of this area. What do you know about the history of the river valley? Do you know any famous settlers? How about any famous Indigenous people? Keep going east down Saskatchewan Drive to your next stop.