Jesse Thistle

photo courtesy of Lucie Pekarek-Thistle

From homeless to homelessness expert

How Jesse Thistle is using his time on the streets to help keep others off them

It’s fair to say Jesse Thistle understands the issue of homelessness more intimately than most academics. As a Trudeau and Vanier scholar whose work focuses on Indigenous homeless, he’s a topic expert. But as a Métis-Cree man who spent 10 years sleeping in his car, parks, shelters and rooms rented by the month, Thistle knows first-hand what it’s like to struggle on the streets.

This fall, Thistle produced the Definition of Indigenous Homelessness in Canada for the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, a non-profit research institute. It’s a new way of looking at the issue, he says, taking into account disconnection from spirituality, family and land. “It’s not just about not having a home,” says Thistle. “My people have become culturally and spiritually homeless and this persists through their lives – and through generations.”

There’s definitely a relationship between this disconnect and how many Indigenous people end up homeless, says Thistle. Just look at the numbers: in Toronto, Indigenous peoples account for about 15 percent of the city’s homeless—and just 0.5 percent of the total population. Thistle says he’s heard all the stories and his fits right in.

Thistle and his two brothers grew up in Toronto, estranged from their parents and cared for by their grandparents. He was an angry and confused teen. “When I was 16, I started experimenting with drugs and alcohol and living up to expectations of what I thought an Indigenous person was,” he says.

At 19, he moved to Vancouver to live with one of his brothers, then an RCMP officer, but was soon kicked out of the house due to drug use. “That’s when I started living in my car,” he says. Over the next few years, Thistle cycled through shelters, rented rooms and apartments, but was never able to stay in one place for long—his addictions always got the better of him.

“When I was around 22, I was introduced to crack cocaine, and from then it just got worse and worse,” he says. “By my late 20s I was in and out of the justice system, committing crimes to support my habit.” Petty theft escalated to break-and-enters. In 2005, a fall from a building left him with a serious leg injury. Thistle was afraid he was going to lose his leg, so out of desperation he held up a corner store, hoping he’d be able to recover from his injury in jail. It was a cry for help, he says. And he almost got some. “I just wanted a safe place to recover and the judge offered me the chance to go to rehab.” Unfortunately, Thistle never checked in.

I promised that I would go to school and take it as far as I could, and to help people instead of hurting them.

By 2008, he was sleeping outside in parks and in shelters. He committed another break-and-enter for drug money and, this time, the judge released him to Harvest House, a recovery center in Ottawa. Finally, Thistle got sober and earned his GED.

During that time, Thistle experienced another turning point. “My grandmother found out she had leukemia and I got a call one day that she was dying,” he says. He was able to get to Toronto, stowed in the back of someone’s moving truck, so he could see her one last time. “I apologized for who I was and my life and the addictions, but she wasn’t angry about any of that,” he says. “She was angry that I wasn’t using the gifts God gave me.” So, he made her a promise: “I promised that I would go to school and take it as far as I could, and to help people instead of hurting them,” he says. It was a vow he intended to keep.

Through his studies at York University, Thistle realized he could trace his family back to the Battle of Batoche in Saskatchewan in 1885. “I learned we were these fierce bison hunters and rebel fighters,” he says. But, he says, once Canadian government forces squashed the rebellion, his people ended up dispossessed of their land, robbed of treaty rights and the ability to participate in the settler economy or own property. “They came to live on these strips of land on the side of the road, like a ditch, really, and I learned that’s where my mom is from.” Life there was poverty-stricken and violent, and the trauma of this history has been passed down through the generations, he says.

The Métis road-allowance communities of northern Saskatchewan have become the focus of Thistle’s academic work–and his personal journey. “It has basically been an archaeology of myself,” he says. “I used that lived experience and knowledge of homelessness in writing The Definition of Indigenous Homelessness, because I can understand it from both sides.”

Thistle says he does all of this to help people: To help Canadians better understand Indigenous homelessness, addiction and mental health issues, and to change policy and get resources into the hands of Indigenous service providers. Along the way, he’s finally been able to help himself, too. “I’ve rediscovered my identity as an Indigenous person and reconnected with my mother,” he says. “It has caused ripples of healing in my family. I always remember the person that I once was, and I try to help that person.”