Research Matters Blog

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub: York University
October 02, 2015
Categories: Ask the Hub

Melissa L. asked this question via our latest website survey.

Due to a lack of standardized counts and statistic collection, we don’t have totally concrete numbers on just how many people are homeless and where. (Hopefully, the 2016 Coordinated Point-in-Time Count will help give us a fuller picture.) What we do know is that homelessness is not just an urban problem, though it tends to be most visible in those areas. Homelessness can look very different but occurs in many communities, regions and cities worldwide. (Read the Canadian definition of homelessness to learn more about how we define homelessness and what it can look like.)

Homelessness is hard to quantify due to the complicated and interrelated nature of its causes, which include: systemic failures (ie. poor discharge planning), individual circumstances (ie. family conflict), and/or systemic issues (ie. lack of affordable housing, employment opportunities). In some areas, lack of infrastructure contributes to the kind of homelessness (ie. hidden homelessness is more prevalent in rural and northern parts of Canada due to a lack of shelters, rental and transitional housing) but not the rates overall. To examine all of these factors in a geographical fashion would be a mammoth task! That said, two major factors that contribute to homelessness across the country include population size and housing markets.


Tanya wrote a bit about this last January, explaining that we have to rely on data from cities that do gather information to make estimates and educated guesses. From the data we do have, Canada’s major cities tend to have the highest rates of homelessness. Given the density and large populations of cities, this isn’t surprising. Furthermore, cities tend to have infrastructure and systems around homelessness – more rental housing, non-profit organizations, shelters, soup kitchens, and housing supports – that smaller communities don’t have; often making them a worthwhile destination for people who need extra support.

In the State of Homelessness in Canada 2013 report, the authors pulled point-in-time count data showing that while Toronto, Ontario had the highest number of people experiencing homelessness in general, Red Deer, Alberta had the highest number of people experiencing homelessness per capita.

Rates of homelessness by city

Because of how limited existing data is – point-in-time counts only include shelter users and miss people who are precariously housed or hidden homeless – causation is hard to determine.

Even though cities tend to have more jobs and social opportunities – Toronto, for example, is often viewed as a “safe haven” for LGBTQ2 youth seeking community and a sense of belonging – living in them tends to come with a high price tag due to tight and inflated housing markets.

Housing markets

The value placed on private property ownership means that when demand goes up for housing, so do prices – which encourages policymakers and development companies to favour strategies for private home ownership over affordable rental housing. As a result, we have very strained housing markets, especially for people in working classes and/or living in poverty.

Core housing need

Just this week, the municipal government in Portland, Oregon put forward a motion to declare homelessness an emergency – the goal being to fast-track rent control and inclusionary zoning. In Portland, a constant influx of residents and a mere 3% vacancy rate have been driving rents upward by 20% over the past 5 years. Similar trends have been noted in Toronto, Ontario and Vancouver, British Columbia – now the two most expensive cities to live in Canada.

According to data from the Homeless Hub’s 2014 report, nearly 1 in 5 households experience extreme housing affordability problems. According to the CHRA, the rates of renters in extreme core housing need – meaning, paying more than 50% of their income on housing – are: Vancouver at 22%, in Halifax at 21%, in Toronto, Edmonton and St. John’s at 20%, and Montreal at 19%. As the same report proposed, the only way to ease limited vacancy and end homelessness is to invest in affordable housing.

This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at and we will provide a research-based answer.

This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at and we will provide a research-based answer.
York University; Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub
September 30, 2015

Across Canada, there is growing awareness about the need for provincial governments to step up in the fight against poverty. This week’s infographic takes a look at poverty costs in Canada. The infographic was produced by Vibrant Communities Calgary and the Action to End Poverty in Alberta and draws data from a 2012 report published by both organizations.

Poverty Costs in Alberta

The infographic states that there are 73,000 children living in poverty in Alberta and up to a quarter of these children are expected to remain in poverty as adults. In the absence of supports and services that provide youth with a pathway out of poverty, children in poverty will not escape poverty as adults. This can ultimately result in intergenerational poverty.

Canada often commends itself on its social safety net. However, it is important to stay critical about just the effectiveness of our social safety net. It’s worth noting that a recent report published by Public Interest Alberta states that child poverty rates in the province had dropped by less than a percent from 1989 to 2012. Canada’s social safety net has been under attack in recent years, resulting in it being less effective in helping families move out of poverty.

While most people are aware of the moral arguments to fight poverty, they are less aware of the long-term economic costs associated with poverty for society at large. The infographic divides these costs into three categories: opportunity costs of $4.2-$6.2 billion, crime costs of $464 million, and intergenerational costs of $410-$513 million. Two things are worth noting here: (1) the costs to society at large are greater than the costs to society and (2) opportunity costs are the highest expense.

Recently, Vibrant Communities Calgary and Action to End Poverty in Alberta published an updated report looking at what steps can be taken to alleviate poverty in Alberta. The document contains over 60 policy recommendations, and many of these recommendations are of relevance to other provinces. For example, the report highlights the need for new standardized quantitative and qualitative indicators to measure inequality and social exclusion. As it stands, there are many different measures used to estimate poverty levels, and most of these measures focus purely on income without taking into consideration the physical, social and psychological needs of citizens. Establishing such indicators would make it easier to develop and implement programming that target poverty, homelessness, food insecurity and other issues.

To help disseminate the findings of their 2012 report, Vibrant Communities Calgary and Action to End Poverty in Alberta produced a video that summarizes some of the key findings and strategies mentioned in the report.

Perhaps most importantly, the video emphasizes the value of taking a preventative approach. While preventative approaches require greater investment and commitment in the short-term, that’s a small cost to pay for the long-term benefits associated with addressing the causes, rather than the symptoms, of poverty and homelessness. It’s important to enact policy that is informed by the role that structural factors play in determining how resources and opportunity are distributed.

Calgary Homeless Foundation
September 29, 2015

Canadian skyI recently gave a presentation at Raising the Roof’s Child & Family Homelessness Stakeholder Summit in Toronto. My slide deck can be downloaded here. To accompany the presentation, I’ve prepared the following list of “Ten Things to Know About Homelessness in Canada.”

1. Efforts to enumerate persons experiencing homeless have generally been spotty, but it is reasonable to assert that homelessness in Canada saw substantial growth in the 1980s and 1990s. 
On a nightly basis in Toronto, there were about 1,000 persons per night staying in emergency shelters in 1980. By 1990, that figure had doubled. And ten years later, there were 4,000 persons per night staying in Toronto’s emergency shelters. The Toronto figure of 4,000 per night has remained relatively constant for the past 15 years, though it has ‘edged up’ in the aftermath of the 2008-2009 recession—a phenomenon which I’ve previously written about here. (Admittedly, the number of persons living in emergency shelters on a nightly basis is a rather narrow gauge of homelessness. According to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, approximately 13% of Canadian households are in “core housing need;” for Nunavut, the figure is a whopping 39%.)

2. Though it’s difficult to establish causation, I think relatively safe assumptions can be made about some of the major contributors to homelessness. 
Researchers are generally careful about using the term causation—in fact, there are long-standing tensions among academic disciplines as to what methodological approaches are required to establish it. Statisticians, for example, generally believe that randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are needed to establish causation; but as David Freedman has argued, RCTs are often “impractical or unethical” (Freedman, 1999, p. 255). Rather, careful researchers are more likely to say things like “these factors have likely contributed to this effect,” or “I think it’s likely that this effect caused this to happen.” And with that in mind, I’d like to suggest that there are probably three major factors that have contributed to homelessness in Canada: 1) macroeconomic factors (especially unemployment); 2) changes to our social welfare system (including a decrease in the availability of government-subsidized housing); and 3) the design and administration of policies whose specific intent is to respond directly to homelessness (often referred to as ‘systems responses’ to homelessness).

3. Homelessness has profound ramifications on the lives of children.
As I wrote in 2012: “Two studies have been done in Toronto looking at the role of housing with respect to children in care. Results of both studies indicate that the state of the family’s housing was a factor in one in five cases in which a child was temporarily admitted into care. Results from the Toronto research also indicate that, in one in 10 cases, housing status delayed the return home of a child from care” (Falvo, 2012, p. 14). Other research estimates that, on an annual basis in Toronto alone, approximately 300 babies are born to mothers who are homeless. (Of course, homelessness can have profound ramifications on the lives of adults as well. For more on this, see this 2007 study.)

4. The role of Canada’s federal government in funding both housing for low-income persons and programming for homeless persons has varied considerably over time. 
Provinces and territories spend much more of their own money on housing for low-income persons when the federal government leads. Thus, a considerable amount of subsidized housing for low-income Canadians was built from the mid-1960s through to the early 1990s. Since the early 1990s, comparatively little subsidized housing has been built for low-income persons in Canada. I should also note that the annual, inflation-adjusted value of federal funding for homelessness today is worth just 35% of what it was worth in 1999.

5. Not every province/territory responds to homelessness in the same way. 
While much mores subsidized housing for low-income persons gets built when the federal government leads, provinces and territories don’t always respond to federal funding initiatives in the same way. For example, between 2002 and 2013, three times as many subsidized housing units were built in Alberta (on a per capita basis) than in Ontario. I would argue that a driving force behind this differential stems from Alberta’s strong economic performance during this same period relative to that of Ontario’s.

6. Though a careful researcher will be cautious in discussing what causes homelessness, I think we know a lot about what solves it. 
In many cases, a person who stays in an emergency shelter will ‘exit homelessness’ without substantial public resources. In some cases, they might find housing on their own; in other cases, family and friends may provide them with short term assistance—e.g. some financial support, a couch to sleep on, etc. (To learn more about lengths of stay in homeless shelters in a sample of Canadian cities, see this 2013 study.) Researchers and advocates for the homeless generally don’t view such short-term stays as a major public policy challenge—the bigger challenge is in the case of persons who stay in emergency shelters (and outside) for longer periods of time. Even here though, I would argue that it’s hardly a mystery as to what constitutes an effective policy response.

Indeed, as early as the mid-1980s, small non-profit organizations in Ontario (and possibly in other provinces as well) found success in building subsidized housing for persons who had experienced long-term homelessness—they did so by providing professional staff support to help such tenants live independently in those units. This was (and still is) known as supportive housing. The emergence of supportive housing in Ontario happened in large part due to strong advocacy by community-based groups. This included: the Singles Displaced Persons Project; the consumer/survivor movement; the slogan “homes not hostels;” the founding of Houselink Community Homes; and the founding of Homes First Society. Conditions of eligibility for such housing varied from one provider to the next. In many cases, the tenant did not have to prove ‘housing readiness’ before being offered a unit. In fact, Homes First Society got its name because its founders believed that its tenants needed homes first before addressing other challenges (i.e. mental health, substance use, employment, etc.).

Today, researchers, practitioners and advocates refer to this approach as ‘housing first.’ And very recently, a successful RCT of ‘housing first’ was conducted in five Canadian cities; I’ve previously written about that study here.

7. There are several ways of making housing available to low-income households; all of them involve the private sector to varying degrees. 
Sometimes when government subsidizes housing for low-income persons, it provides money to a non-profit entity that develops, owns and operates the units. Other times, government provides a subsidy to landlords (either for-profit or non-profit); in exchange for the subsidy, the landlord agree to rent units at a reduced rate for a specified period of time (e.g. in some cases, for 10 years). And other times, government provides money (often known as a housing allowance) to low-income tenants who then rent a unit from a for-profit landlord. Of the three possible approaches, I personally have a preference for the option where a non-profit entity develops, owns and operates the units (and I have previously written about this here). Having said that, I think there’s a place for all three approaches, depending on local context.

8. Some jurisdictions have used sophisticated information management systems as part of their efforts to respond to homelessness. 
Many organizations serving homeless persons in Calgary enter client information into a database called the Homelessness Management Information System, a system that is also used in many American cities. Client-level information (such as age, health status, employment status and housing status) is entered into the database when an initial intake is done. While the client is receiving services, updated information is entered again; in the case of some programs, follow-up assessments are done every three months. In the case of some program types, there are both exit and post-exit follow-up assessments completed. All information-gathering is subject to provincial privacy legislation. There are many uses for the data once it’s gathered. For example, some organizations use the data to provide case management services to clients. Also, funders are able to assess each organization’s performance against benchmarks (i.e. percentage of clients who receive housing after a specific period of time).

9. When it comes to both preventing and responding to homelessness, the capacity of government to generate revenue matters a great deal. 
Governments typically use revenue generated from taxation to finance both subsidized housing and other important social programs. When tax revenue decreases, many governments have less ability to spend on such programs. Since the mid-1990s, tax revenue in Canada (measured as a percentage of our Gross Domestic Product) has decreased substantially. If this trend doesn’t reverse itself soon, it will be very challenging for many governments (especially provincial, territorial and municipal governments) to invest in important social programs. There is currently a move afoot by some Canadians to increase taxes; it is led by Alex Himelfarb, former Clerk of the Privy Council. Alex and his son Jordan recently co-edited a book that calls for the need for higher taxation in Canada. (Note: according to some schools of thought, it isn’t necessary for a sovereign government with its own currency to tax more in order to finance more social spending. While keeping in mind that such an approach would be most relevant to Canada’s federal government—and much less relevant to provincial, territorial and municipal governments—readers can read more about one such school of thought here.)

10. Over the course of the next decade, Canada will likely see substantial increases in homelessness among both seniors and Indigenous peoples (First Nation, Métis and Inuit). 
Seniors and Indigenous peoples are growing as a percentage of Canada’s total population. Further, the percentage of seniors living below Statistics Canada’s Low-Income Measure has grown substantially since the mid-1990s. I think all of this makes it likely that both of these groups will begin to grow as a percentage of Canada’s homeless populations.

The following individuals were very helpful in helping me prepare the present blog post: Maroine Bendaoud, Lisa Burke, George Fallis, Greg Suttor, Francesco Falvo, Louise Gallagher, Ali Jadidzadeh, Lisa Ker, Jennifer Legate, Kevin McNichol, Richard Shillington, Blake Thomas and Mike Veall. Any errors are mine.

This article was originally posted to The Progressive Economics Forum

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub: York University
September 25, 2015
Tags: elections
Categories: Ask the Hub

Last week, we released our 2015 election guide, which uses non-partisan research to explore where the major Canadian political parties stand on affordable housing and homelessness. (Here’s some more information on how you can use it.)

Another very important part of the upcoming election is helping marginalized people – like those experiencing homelessness – navigate the voting system. This has become more crucial in the wake of major changes to the Fair Elections Act, including the removal of the voter information card as proof of residency. Lacking a fixed address and living in poverty often results in people lacking the identification and sometimes, the information needed to vote. Here’s a quick rundown of what is required to vote in the upcoming election and how we can help people experiencing homelessness participate.

Who can vote in Canadian federal elections?

Canadian citizens over 18 can vote. Unfortunately, this excludes many temporary workers, newcomers, refugees and people with permanent resident status.


Everyone must be registered to vote. This can be done on the Elections Canada website (people can also check their registration status there), by mail, in person at an Elections Canada office, or in person just before voting (though this makes the process longer).

Online registration requires a voter to have a driver’s license or provincial/territorial ID card. There are ways to register with other forms of ID: by mail, at an elections office (find out where your local one is), or in person at the polls. 


ID Replacement Clinic in Victoria, BCEveryone is required to prove their identity and address when going to vote. The fastest way is to provide a driver’s license, a provincial/territorial card, or any piece of government identification that includes a photo and current address.

Given that people experiencing homelessness likely won’t have a current address – many don’t even have driver’s licenses – they will have to provide 2 pieces of other identification. Here is a full list of what will be accepted.

If a person cannot provide proof of current address, they can bring 2 pieces of identification that has their name on it, take an oath and have someone vouch for their address on voting day. That person must have identification with a current address and be registered in the same polling division.

What can be used as an address?

If a person is temporarily staying with friends or family, they can use that address as their current address.  

If a person is staying in a shelter, they can use the address of the shelter as their current address.

For those living on the streets but receiving services from a shelter, soup kitchen or other organization, they can use that address as their current address.

In all of these scenarios, the person still needs documentation proving their identity and current address. If no current address is listed on any acceptable identification, they must either:

  1. have someone vouch for their address, or
  2. get a letter of confirmation of residence from a shelter or organization where they stay and/or receive services.

Dates & voting options

Election Day is Monday, October 19. To avoid rushing and/or long lines, people can also vote on advance polling days: October 9, 10, 11 and 12 (between noon and 8pm). Advance polling locations can be found on the voter information card received after registration.

People can vote at their local polling station, at Elections Canada 400 offices, or by mail. Voting by mail requires an application and a special voting kit, so if this option is selected, the person must apply by Tuesday, October 13. Voting by mail also requires making copies of a lot of documents, so it’s an unlikely option for people experiencing homelessness.

How you can help

  • If you work in a shelter, community centre or other social service organization, set up a voting information workshop for people experiencing homelessness. Help them register to vote online (if possible), by mail and/or help them find identification that they can use at the polls. The Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness hosted an ID Replacement Clinic for those experiencing homelessness or extreme poverty earlier this week, and have another one scheduled for September 29th.
  • One important piece of I.D. that shelters/organizations providing services to people experiencing homelessness can provide is a letter of confirmation of residence. This can act as proof of a person’s address. With this letter, a person only needs one other piece of identification that has their name on it.  
  • Have volunteers offer to vouch for people who cannot get a letter and have no documentation of their “current address.” 
York University; Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub
September 23, 2015

This week’s infographic, published by Community Partnership of the Ozarks, presents findings from a survey conducted among high risk and homeless youth living in Springfield, Missouri.

Facing our youth infographic part 1

Researchers found that 43% of participants had wondered where they would get food from on the day of the survey. The food access problems faced by youth in Springfield are not so far away from the problems faced by youth living in major Canadian cities. A recent study, which looked at charitable food services offered in Victoria, Edmonton, Toronto, Quebec City, and Halifax found that 96% of homeless youth interviewed did not have access to enough food in the past month. The same survey found that barriers to food access were so severe that many went without food for an entire day or more. Opportunities for youth to provide feedback about their experiences with food assistance programs are of the utmost importance for municipalities that have an interest in making improvements to the status quo. Youth living on the streets, more than anyone else, are aware of the challenges they face with food accessibility.

Many youth find themselves living in homelessness because of relationship difficulties in the home setting. Once on the streets, these youth often find themselves at increased risk of being the victim of physical and sexual violence. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center in the United States, 21-42% of homeless youth report being the victim of sexual abuse. When interpreting the previous figure, it’s important to consider that many assaults go unreported. Accordingly, the incidence of violence crime against homeless youth may be far higher than the above figures suggest.

Early interventions into the lives of youth entering homelessness can be understood as a preventative measure against chronic homelessness. Preventive approaches to youth homelessness have seen measured success abroad. A common strategy for youth who have become homelessness is a family reconnection case management approach which focuses on resolving conflicts between young people who have left home and their caregivers. Respite accommodation can provide young people with safe high quality accommodation for a short period of time when young people are fleeing family conflict. An evaluation of a respite accommodation program operating in Birmingham (UK) found that 78% of youth who used respite accommodation services returned home after just two weeks.

This post highlights just a few of the many difficulties that homeless youth have to deal with. The stress associated with finding a safe shelter to sleep and rest in every night is overwhelming. The chronic stigma associated with being homeless may push youth to unhealthy coping mechanisms, including drug abuse. Homelessness has been recognized as an independent predictor of injection drug use among street-involved youth. When we consider the many challenges and disadvantages that youth face as a direct result of becoming homeless, it’s clear that more needs to be done for street-involved youth. Limited funding for existing services and a lack of service accessibility directly contributes to poor outcomes for these youth and their communities.

Facing our youth infographic part 2


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The analysis and interpretations contained in the blog posts are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.