What is the Relationship Between Refugees and Homelessness?

Western University
August 23, 2018

In this bi-weekly blog series, I explore recent research on homelessness, and what it means for the provision of services to prevent or end homelessness. Read the first blog here


In a short period of time, the relationship between Canada’s refugee system and the homeless-serving sector has become a tense political issue. This article in the Globe and Mail from April 2018, highlights that refugee claimants now account for 40% of people staying in Toronto’s emergency shelters. This seems to stand in rather stark contrast to a report from last year that speaks to newcomer homelessness being a relatively hidden experience in Canada. Moreover, my own research, as well as others, has found that while struggling with housing suitability, very few of the Syrian refugees who came to Canada in 2016 have experienced housing loss.

So, what is actually happening in Canada in regard to refugees and emergency shelter utilization? Are refugees actually ending up in shelters for people experiencing homelessness, and if so, why?

First, let’s untangle the facts. It’s important to understand the different designations given to people who enter Canada either as refugees or as refugee claimants:

1. GARs – Government-Assisted Refugees – Individuals identified in another country as qualified refugees, who are then supported with entry into Canada by Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), and with preliminary housing and financial assistance.

2. PSRs – Privately Sponsored Refugees – Individuals identified in another country as qualified refugees, who are then supported by private individuals or entities with resettlement in Canada.

3. BVOR – Blended VISA Office Referred – This is essentially a blend of the above designations as the Government of Canada and private entities share the cost of resettlement.

4. Refugee Claimants – Individuals who present at a point of entry or an inland refugee office, or who are taken into custody by the RCMP, who seek asylum in Canada.

Next, to connect this with the above conflicting data, it is worth noting that the majority of Syrians who entered in early 2016 were GARs, with the remainder being PSRs. Conversely, you will note that in the Toronto emergency shelter data, they clearly identify those who are newly occupying shelters as refugee claimants.

What we know from research is that while GARs and PSRs are often under-housed, their pathways to homelessness are similar to the Canadian born population or other newcomers. Factors such as poverty, trauma, family breakdown, mental health, and substance use increase the risk of homelessness for all groups. Rates of absolute homelessness are also close to par (mitigated by higher rates of hidden homelessness), so refugees who are a small percentage of the Canadian population also normally encompass a small percentage of the emergency shelter population.

What has shifted these numbers is the significant increase in refugee claimants entering Canada. So, individuals entering homeless shelters at higher rates are unrelated to Canada’s intake of GARs, and unrelated to the ongoing private sponsorship system (PSRs). Rather, the majority of the change is related to those who have crossed the border from the U.S. to make an asylum claim. Whereas GARs, PSRs, and those on the BVOR program are supported with resettlement, refugee claimants must find their own resources and supports while awaiting making their asylum claim or having their claim processed (NOTE: Those awaiting processing of their claim are eligible for provincial income assistance in most cases and provinces.)

Two policies are influencing this increase in refugee claimants:

1. The U.S. declaring zero-tolerance on migrants who are already in the States but have not obtained citizenship.

2. That most individuals are not able to make a refugee claim at a designated Canada-U.S. point of entry as the U.S. is deemed a “safe third country”. Therefore, crossing the border irregularly increases one’s ability to make a claim in Canada.

Therefore, it is notable that what is being experienced in municipally-managed emergency shelters in Canada is largely related to a policy from a neighbouring country, as well as a bi-lateral agreement. Indeed, refugee claimants are accessing emergency shelters in Canada at exponentially higher numbers, but the causal factors are very different and connect across all three orders of government, hence the political tensions. 

While this post doesn’t offer immediate solutions to the issue, it hopefully dispels some of the myths around refugees and emergency shelters and helps us understand why municipal governments are looking to the provincial and federal governments for assistance in addressing the challenge.

Dr. Abe Oudshoorn is an Assistant Professor in the Arthur Labatt Family School of Nursing at Western University.  Having worked as a nurse with people experiencing homelessness, Abe’s research focuses on health, homelessness prevention, mental health, and poverty.  Outside of the University, Abe is on the Steering Committee of the London Homeless Coalition and is a board member with the United Way of London & Middlesex.

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