Every morning before the doors open at Velma’s House, Isabel Daniels smudges the West Broadway space.
When visitors enter they are greeted with the smell of sage.
This ceremony is repeated throughout the day.
“The first thing we do, especially if [women] are upset, we sit with them and we smudge with them. Offer them some water [or] some tea,” Daniels explains as she walks around the home smudging each room.
Unlike some similar drop-ins in the city, Velma’s House specifically offers resources to adult women who may be experiencing homelessness, violence or exploitation.
Daniels is the program coordinator, and for years has been part of a group of advocates who have pushed for a space like Velma’s House.
“Two of my sisters have died due to violence in the wake of hoping to have a place like this because if they had a place like this we would have saved people a lot sooner or we could have had the chance to provide safety for women who are escaping street violence. Not just spousal violence but street violence,” Daniels told APTN News.
The home opened last month and is being run through Ka Ni Kanichihk, a Winnipeg-based Indigenous organization, in collaboration with a committee made up of representatives from the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Manitoba Coalition of Families, the Aboriginal Health and Wellness Centre, Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre, End Homelessness Winnipeg and the West Central Women’s Resource Centre.
For years advocates have been trying to get a space tailored to address the needs of sexually exploited adults but were faced with many funding blocks along the way.
Daniels was part of a sub-committee who applied for funding in 2019 through the federal government’s family prevention program but she told APTN last year the project didn’t meet criteria.
Daniels said in the past year the COVID-19 pandemic has opened up new funding opportunities from various levels of government as well as revenue from private funders making Velma’s House a reality.
The home is named after Velma Orvis who was a prominent Elder in the city. She passed away last spring.
Along with passing down teachings and facilitating ceremonies in Winnipeg, Orvis worked with the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
Daniels said the respected Elder offered endless love to anyone who needed it regardless of circumstances.
“The women really felt like it should be named after her for all of the efforts and advocacy she did for women that were either entrenched in exploitation or homelessness or addiction,” she said.
“She provided supports and services for a lot of our women even if they weren’t sober.”
At Velma’s House visitors can do laundry, take a shower and get access to meals and harm reduction supplies.
Workers will also try to connect women to mental health and addiction resources as well as shelters.
There are eight staff who oversee the home. They use their own lived experiences to help guide the work they do.
“Velma’s House is survivor-lead. All of our staff have either [some] experience in exploitation or homelessness or gangs or addictions,” said Daniels.
“It’s Indigenous-lead, and I think that it makes a difference in how we approach our people because we know what it’s like to walk in through those doors. We know what it’s like to be that person accessing a space like this.”
One of those employees is Anisha Saddler who is a support worker at the home.
“I came here so I could focus on using my trauma and using my lifestyle experiences to empower other women, and to let them know that there is hope,” said Saddler.
Saddler is a survivor of street violence and exploitation, and is a former drug user.
With a solid support system, she was able to go back to school and has been doing frontline work since then.
She hopes to pass on that same support to women at Velma’s House.
“I want people to build up their confidence and know that they are good enough and they’re worth it. So many times through our life we’re made to feel like we’re worthless and that’s just not true for anybody,” said Saddler.
Along with access to services and ceremonies, women can volunteer to help around the house in exchange for gift cards to grocery stores, according to Daniels, “everybody needs purpose, and I’m hoping that this place provides that for some of our women.”
The space operates seven days a week on a reduced schedule.
Daniels hopes to be fully operational 24-hours a day by the fall.
She also hopes to see the space eventually expand to include transitional services for when women go from detox to a treatment facility.