Research Matters Blog
The What Would it Take? study, released in early 2018, captured the voices of young people as they helped shape what youth homelessness prevention should look like in Canada. Across 7 provinces/territories, 12 communities, 17 focus groups and 114 participants, our goal was to amplify the voices, insights, and wisdom of young people in order to drive the policy and practice change needed to prevent youth homelessness.
Youth explained that they became homeless as a result of many intersecting factors, such as poverty, family conflict, difficulty transitioning from care, limited availability of services, and landlord discrimination. To best understand these complex factors and how our prevention efforts can target each one, we used a social-ecological model that frames the causes of homelessness within three domains: “structural factors, systems failures, and individual and relational factors” (Gaetz et al., 2013; Gaetz, 2014).
STRUCTURAL FACTORS are broad systemic, economic, and societal issues that occur at a societal level that affect opportunities, social environments, and outcomes for individuals.
SYSTEM FAILURES refer to situations in which inadequate policy and service delivery within and between systems contribute to the likelihood that someone will experience homelessness. These include barriers to accessing public systems, failed transitions from publicly funded institutions and systems, and silos and gaps both within and between government funded departments and systems, and also within non-profit sectors.
INDIVIDUAL AND RELATIONAL FACTORS refer to the “personal circumstances that place people at risk of homelessness.” (Pg. 3, 34)
If we are to make measurable and lasting impacts on homelessness, we must stop young people from becoming homeless, transition youth out of homelessness quickly, and ensure that they do not become homeless again. These three elements should drive any strategy targeted at responding to youth homelessness, locally, provincially, territorially or nationally. The recommendations contained in the report give policymakers and the ears of government the starting place for “how”. But we can’t just rely on policy to make change, we must also rely on communities investing in these issues and designing solutions.
Recently, Dr. Kaitlin Schwan and I were contacted by Dr. Iwasaki’s team at the University of Alberta, Faculty of Extensions. As a component of their Participatory Action Research study with youth experiencing homelessness, youth themselves requested to host a conference based on the What Would it Take? report because the document was meaningful to them and they wanted to mobilize it further. How could we say no? His team is using youth-oriented and community-based participatory action research in engaging and working with, and for, high-risk youth living in marginalized conditions. These conditions include poverty, homelessness, social exclusion, mental health issues, racism, and other forms of discrimination. In working with youth leaders, his team is in the process of developing, testing, and refining a framework for youth engagement to facilitate social change and more effectively support optimal development of marginalized youth.
The conference, held on July 27, 2018, attracted youth, service providers, youth workers, policy makers, elected officials, researchers, and community members. Organizers used the What Would it Take? report to present themes and facilitate "Ted Talk" formatted presentations from youth and service providers. What resonated was the opportunity for youth to share their stories about the challenges they experienced while facing homelessness and solutions identified in the report that aligned with their perspectives and goals. Leadership from the conference emerged from youth themselves, and they hope their work can inspire other “Ted Talk” opportunities across Canada.
This opportunity and initiative reflects the transferability, resonance, and importance of the report. If you are looking to shape your community’s work and focus on youth homelessness prevention, we highly encourage you to use the report to position that conversation. Please connect with myself or Kaitlin Schwan if you want support to approach, design, or facilitate that process.
From a human rights perspective, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) acknowledges the right of a child or youth to express their views, to be heard and to have their views given due weight according to their age and level of maturity. This promotes respect for children as active participants in their own lives and acknowledges their evolving capacity and gradual progression into adulthood. Further, it acknowledges the importance of a child or youth’s input to informing the decisions affecting their lives, at both an individual and systemic level.
Our goal is to ensure opportunities to embed youth voice are coordinated, strategic, and most of all empowering for young people. Embedding youth engagement into your policy and program development should always be underpinned by the belief that children and youth have a fundamental right to be engaged in decisions that affect them. Youth have an important role in directing and shaping their own priorities and interests.
Within our work, we push towards ensuring communities have the tools they need to make measurable change. We want to equip you with the resources you need to feel confident about moving forward, imagine solutions and ensure we improve outcomes for youth at risk of or experiencing homelessness. Together, we can help ensure that every young person has the support they need to have a healthy transition to adulthood and the opportunity to reach their full potential.
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.
Do a Google Images search of the word “homeless” and you will find page after page of pictures of men. Look to published reports, public presentations, websites of service providers or advocacy organizations who work in the sector, and you will find mostly images of men. As emergency shelter occupancy rates and counts of homelessness time after time find higher proportions of men than women, it is presumed that more men experience homelessness than women. What is up for debate is exactly what proportion we are talking about. Moreover, what does the research tell us about rates of homelessness?
Answering this question is tricky due to the gendered nature of the experience of homelessness. We know from qualitative research that women are less likely to be visibly present at services for people experiencing homelessness. This can be because women are more likely to have children in their care and are worried to have them apprehended, because women are avoiding men who have harmed them who use these services, or just general safety concerns about accessing mixed gender spaces. In this context, we know counts won’t paint a complete picture; especially when we consider the range of typologies represented in the Canadian Definition of Homelessness.
Brett Feldman and colleagues came up with a novel way to address this question: Look at data on individuals entering an emergency department. In their study presenting the prevalence of homelessness by gender in an emergency department population in Pennsylvania they screened 4,395 patients on housing status and gender. This offers a particularly novel approach. While individuals have some choice regarding accessing social services, choice is far more limited in the context of an emergency medical condition. Therefore, the proportions seen among people presenting at a hospital emergency department are more likely to represent ‘true’ population proportions than might be present in an emergency shelter.
They found that 7.4% of their emergency department population who were homeless identified as male, and 6.8% identified as female; with 0.07% identifying as transgender. Interestingly, the number of individuals who slept “rough” in the past two months was also almost identical, with 40 women and 41 men having slept rough. This confronts data on rough sleepers, which also tend to skew male, indicating that perhaps men are more likely to be counted among enumerations of rough sleepers.
Ultimately, there were no statistically significant differences in the proportions of males and females who experienced homelessness.
While there are obvious limitations to this study in terms of the geographic and public policy context, it is the first study I have read that finds a way of determining proportion of homelessness by gender outside of homeless-serving agencies or rough sleeping situations. I believe that this study provides us warning to not to continue to perpetuate the myth that homelessness is a primarily male experience.
Individuals who experience homelessness are diverse, not only in characteristics such as age, gender, sexual orientation and/or race, but also in terms of their living arrangements. Homelessness is commonly perceived as an individual sleeping on the street or in emergency shelters - locations that are highly visible. However, homelessness is experienced in multiple ways, and is often a fluid experience ranging from places of accommodations, to duration, as well as frequency.
The Canadian Observatory on Homelessness defines hidden homelessness as individuals who are provisionally accommodated. That is, those whose accommodation is temporary or lacks security of tenure.
Known as the “out of sight, out of mind”, populations experiencing hidden homelessness often find themselves couch surfing, staying with friends or family, sleeping in cars, abandoned buildings, or under bridges. Experiencing hidden homelessness entails a living situation that is both physically and emotionally precarious. For instance, one study interviewing youth experiencing hidden homelessness understood their living accommodations with friends or family as temporary and felt a loss of control and feelings of imposition.
Like all those who experience homelessness, pathways into hidden homelessness come about due to a combination of structural factors, system failures, as well as personal circumstances. These factors commonly include unaffordable housing, victimization, chronic illness, disability, a loss of employment, discrimination, family breakdown, and unlivable wages. In turn, several of these factors further contribute to the inability to get permanent housing while also making one even more vulnerable to an increased risk of victimization, sexual exploitation, and a loss of identity.
Who Experiences Hidden Homelessness?
Although there is limited data both nationally and regionally, a 2016 report by Statistics Canada provides us with a unique national-level data set on hidden homelessness. Not without its limitations, this study draws upon past experiences of hidden homelessness and only includes housed Canadians with access to a phone – thus excluding a significant portion of current hidden homeless population. The report finds that factors most strongly correlated with experiencing hidden homelessness include having been victimized sexually and physically as a child, having two or more disabilities, and having moved three or more times in the past five years. Moreover, Indigenous Peoples were overrepresented in these numbers due to Canada’s legacy of colonization. Other findings include:
- Nearly 1 in 10 Canadians have experienced hidden homelessness
- In 2014, 8% of Canadians aged 15 and over report experiencing hidden homelessness at some point in their lives because they had nowhere else to live
- Of the duration of hidden homelessness, 18% experienced it for at least 1 year, 55% ranged between 1 month and 1 year, and 27% for less than 1 month
- 18% of Indigenous populations report experiencing hidden homelessness compared to their non-Indigenous counterparts at 8%
- 15% of LGBTQ2S individuals report having experienced hidden homelessness
- 18% of individuals who identify as bisexual experienced hidden homelessness when compared to 8% of their heterosexual counterparts
- Those who were criminally victimized within the past year were nearly 2x as likely to experience hidden homelessness than those who were not
- Canadians who used medication such as antidepressants were more than 2x as likely to have experienced hidden homelessness than those who did not
- Canadians who reported a marital status as separated or divorced were more than 2x as likely to experience hidden homelessness than their married or never-married counterparts
- The strength of one's support network and community impacted the likelihood of experiencing hidden homelessness, demonstrating that those with strong community ties were least likely to experience hidden homelessness (7%), and those with weak ties were 2x as likely (14%) to report an episode of hidden homelessness
- Out of victims of both physical and sexual abuse before age 15, 1 in 4 were likely to have experienced an episode of hidden homelessness, when compared to children who had been abused sexually (12%) or physically (11%)
- Children involved with child welfare services were three times as likely to have experienced hidden homelessness than those not involved with child welfare
How can we enumerate hidden homelessness?
As hidden homelessness is non-visible in nature, opportunities to survey and/or enumerate this population are limited. For instance, PiT Counts are the most effective tool in taking a ‘snapshot’ of the number of people experiencing homelessness on a specific day. However, they cannot accurately enumerate the full extent of hidden homelessness in a community. Typically, this results in an underestimation of how many people in Canada experience homelessness. Promisingly, as part of the 2016 HPS Coordinated Point-in-Time Count, communities were encouraged to conduct surveys with people experiencing hidden homelessness.
On a macro-level, data collected from those who are visibly homeless makes up 20% of the homeless population - where an estimated 80% are hidden homeless. Likewise, State of Homelessness in Canada 2016 found that on any given night 35,000 individuals, minimally, are homeless. When factoring in hidden
homelessness, this figure skyrockets. On a micro-level, our understanding of those who experience hidden homelessness, their unique lived experiences, and day-to-day lives is also limited. The data that we do have suggests that this population often does not use traditional homelessness services. Some factors include: an unease with the shelter environment, feelings of pride, as well as a desire to conceal themselves from society due to the social exclusion they are subjected to. Among this group, women and youth are more likely to experience hidden homelessness as they are less likely to seek out shelter services.
With this said, due to the limitations in surveying this population, it is safe to say that the needs of the hidden homeless are misunderstood, underestimated, and underserved.
Of the data presented, what can be understood is that the pathways into hidden homelessness are similar to what broader research on homelessness finds. That is, an overrepresentation of Indigenous and LGBTQ2S populations experiencing homelessness, as well as a history of sexual and physical victimization in childhood. Promisingly, as we learn more about hidden homelessness, we can tailor systems planning and policy development to reflect the needs of this population. With the rate at which Canadians experience hidden homelessness, we must move towards more innovative solutions to homelessness that work towards a preventative framework. To echo the report’s concluding remarks, additional research is required to further understand the trajectory of those who experience hidden homelessness, and mobilize solutions that incorporate the needs of this population from the bottom up.
We often think of homelessness as an issue limited to big cities. In reality, homelessness does not discriminate, and occurs in all geographic contexts – from urban centres, to the suburbs, and in rural regions.
Homelessness in rural regions often goes unnoticed because it is largely “hidden”, unlike the more visible and broadly-researched street homelessness in urban centres. Fortunately, more and more research is being done in these regions. For instance, PiT Counts in Yellowknife and Brandon have been successful in enumerating and surveying the service needs of the local homeless population to inform systems planning in their respective regions. Drawing on research done to date, this blog post will discuss experiences of rural homelessness.
Rural Homelessness in Canada
A 2011 report from the County of Wellington, Ont. showed:
- The majority of interviewed individuals experiencing homelessness were very reluctant to self-identify as “homeless,” even if they were living in a car or couch surfing.
- Homelessness in rural settings continues to go under the radar, and is misunderstood as a social issue that only affects big cities.
- Lack of recognition for the existence of homelessness in rural communities contributes to the lack of funding and development in rural settings.
- Many rural residents are reluctant to access emergency shelters in the city: Only 5-6% of those who use Guelph shelters are residents who come from Wellington county, Ont.
1. Access and relevance of services and resources
In larger cities, it is more common to find individuals “sleeping rough” on the streets, panhandling, or relying on the available social services and supports nearby. Due to a smaller population size and the nature of hidden homelessness in rural regions, services are scarce. What’s more, funding towards building much needed social infrastructure is significantly lacking, as government allocated resources are often population-based. This means that funding for social services are usually concentrated to major urban centres.
Due to this lack of services, many people who are homeless in rural communities rely more on informal networks such as couch surfing with family and friends or look to neighbours for help. In cases of domestic violence that disproportionately affect women and children, emergency shelters are often inaccessible to those needing to flee unsafe situations, forcing individuals to return to an abusive partner for shelter.
In addition to a lack of services overall, services catered to marginalized populations (e.g. LGBTQ2S people, Indigenous Peoples, women) and their distinct lived experiences are essentially non-existent. Rural homelessness disproportionately affects women and children. On any given night in Canada, 3,491 women and their 2,724 children sleep in shelters because it isn't safe at home. The rate of violent crime against women in Nunavut in 2011 was nearly 13 times higher than the rate for Canada.
2. Indigenous Peoples
More than 50% of Indigenous Peoples live in metropolitan regions, and yet Indigenous Peoples still make up the largest share of the population of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. Although the extent to which Indigenous Peoples experience homelessness in rural regions is unknown, we do know that Indigenous Peoples experience homelessness across Canada disproportionate to their population size.
For Indigenous populations experiencing homelessness in rural regions, not only are services scarce, but also often fail to provide a culturally safe space. One reason, among several, explaining the increased migration of Indigenous Peoples from rural to urban regions is the lack of culturally safe services and housing available locally.
According to the Definition of Indigenous Homelessness, what further exacerbates migration from rural to urban regions, thus separation from family and familiar surroundings, are structural and systems factors. These include: crumbling infrastructure due to a lack of government investment in building homes specifically for Indigenous Peoples, racism and discrimination among landlords and service providers (although this is also an issue in urban centres), and irrelevant and inadequate employment opportunities, to name a few.
“…an Inuit from Resolute Bay may want to procure identification. to work and access education for a planned move to Ottawa, but does not know what an identity clinic is, what forms to fll out, what ID is needed to obtain work or where to acquire such forms for that ID, and may not even speak English or French to be able to fill out the forms or communicate with state representatives.”Excerpt from the Definition of Indigenous Homelessness – J. Thistle 2017
Another challenge is access to transportation. To access resources such as food banks, emergency shelters, and health services, people experiencing homelessness in rural areas may have to travel far distances due to the sparse geographic layout. Because of this, transportation can become a barrier for those without cars in rural settings. Public transportation systems can also be unreliable in rural regions, making the process of travelling far for resources unrealistic.
4. Lack of Privacy
The small community-feel of some rural areas can help foster close social ties, while also implicating a lack of privacy. Due to a smaller population size, those who live in rural areas are more likely to know who is experiencing homelessness, resulting in stigmatization. This is problematic as stigma often acts as a barrier to obtaining housing. For instance, landlords may be reluctant to rent to individuals experiencing or who have experienced homelessness.
5. Rural Economy and Housing
As mentioned, rural regions have few housing options available. This scarcity is compounded by an influx of migrating workers and tourists to rural regions, contributing to an increase in housing prices. As a result, locals at a lower income level are frequently left with no other option than to settle for houses that are unfit for human habitation.
The term relative homelessness has been used to describe individuals who are housed but who reside in substandard shelter (e.g. mould, poor heating, no insulation), and/or who may be at risk of losing their homes. Due to the inadequacy of their living arrangements, these individuals are considered to be in need of core housing.
The types of jobs that rural economies tend to rely on also differ from those found in the city. At times of economic boom, often in manufacturing and oil jobs, many rural towns experience a rush of migrant workers, thus increasing the demand for housing. For instance, in 2011, Estevan, Saskatchewan saw a boom in their oil and gas industry, resulting in an influx of economic migrants. Due to the existing lack of housing, many have been forced to sleep rough in cars or in public spaces. Similarly, in Revelstoke, B.C., individuals with lower incomes have been forced into trailers unsafe for habitation as a result of landlords renting out property to higher paying tourists in the region.
Here are some statics on core housing and low-income for rural communities:
Low income: 32%
Core housing need: 21%
Low income: 19%
Core housing need: 22%
New Glasgow, Nova ScotiaPopulation: 9,562
Core housing need: 19%
Wellington County, Ontario
Low income: 15%
Core housing need: 22%
Preventing and addressing rural homelessness
These are some of the ways that homelessness can be prevented in rural areas:
More volunteer driver programs such as the Wellington Transportation Services, made possible by volunteers and funded by the County of Wellington, are a way to address the challenges of accessing remote services in rural communities.
Creating shared spaces in rural communities can address the privacy issues and consequential marginalization faced by people experiencing homelessness in many tight-knit rural areas. This may help to alleviate the discrimination those experiencing homelessness encounter when accessing resources. Other benefits include such the ability to develop social networks, and greater safety in the community.
3. Access to Resources and Services
Alternative shelter programs such as respite accommodation or host homes are options helpful in diverting youth from street homelessness, while also temporarily connecting them to a support system. These shelter options are typically offered by volunteers or paid individuals. Individuals experiencing homelessness are provided with temporary shelter and other resources as part of these programs. For example, the NightStop program connects Canadian youth in crisis with a verified volunteer who provides safe shelter on a night-to-night basis.
4. Services that Target Specific Populations
Creating services specifically tailored to populations such as women, families, Indigenous Peoples, newcomers, LGBTQ2S, and/or veterans are necessary in addressing homelessness for marginalized individuals in rural regions. For example, the Repairing the Holes in the Net action research project sought to understand the barriers northern women who are homeless or marginally housed, and who face mental health and substance use concerns. Women experiencing homelessness or who were marginally housed in Whitehorse, Yukon, Yellowknife, N.W.T., and Iqaluit, Nunavut faced 4 interconnected challenges including: unresolved trauma, poverty and social exclusion, an inability to find and maintain housing, and ineffective services. The women in the study suggested a number of changes at each of these levels such as:
Treatment that was trauma-specific and that would get to the root cause of their substance use problems, a daily living allowance, rent geared to income and changes in services hours on weekends and evenings for easier access. The results of the study went on to inform and tailor service provision catered to the women surveyed.
Despite a lack of research on the nature of homelessness in rural regions, from the information we do know, we know that more must be done. Solutions such as: services specifically tailored to marginalized populations; affordable, accessible, and safe housing; reliable and accessible transportation services, and; alternative shelters and rural Housing First programs are desperately needed in the region. Due to the distinct nature of rural homelessness discussed, more research is needed to cater solutions relevant to the experience of homelessness in rural and remote communities.
Carey Doberstein, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, has written a book about homelessness governance in Canada. The book’s focus is on the way homelessness funding is targeted and allocated in three cities: Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto. It focuses on the 1995-2015 period.
Here are 10 things to know:
1. There are some major differences in homelessness across Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto. On a per-capita basis, Calgary has the most homelessness of the three cities, and Metro Vancouver the least. Between 2008 and 2014, Calgary saw a 62% drop in street homelessness, while Metro Vancouver saw a 39% decrease and Toronto a 24% increase. Both Calgary and Toronto saw modest increases in Indigenous representation among their homeless populations during the period under consideration (17% and 6% respectively) while Vancouver saw a 15% decrease during this time. Finally, families constituted just 5% of persons living in Vancouver’s shelter system in 2014; in Calgary the figure is 12%, and Toronto 20%. All of these figures are accurate as of 2014 and do not reflect results of more recent enumerations (keeping in mind that cross-city comparisons of homelessness populations do come with challenges).
2. One such difference pertains to policy and governance. According to Doberstein: “These three cities differ dramatically in how government and civil society actors organize themselves in governance arrangements to solve public problems” (p. 6). These differences ultimately have an important impact on what homelessness looks like on the ground; however, they do not fully account for the many differences discussed in point #1 above (for more on the many factors that impact the size of a city’s homeless population, see point #3 of this blog post).
3. Better decisions pertaining to homelessness policy and governance are made when multiple stakeholders are involved in decision-making. With regard to homelessness policy and governance, the book is referring to policies with respect to where homelessness funding should go, how homelessness programming should be designed, and which subgroups of a city’s homeless population should be given priority.
4. Multiple stakeholders play important roles in such decision-making in both Vancouver and Calgary, more so than in Toronto. Vancouver and Calgary both have community advisory bodies that meet regularly and where members engage in important debate that leads to decisions pertaining to the disbursement of homelessness funding from the federal and provincial governments. By contrast, Toronto has a community advisory body that advises Toronto’s municipal government on how to direct federal homelessness funding; however, it meets just once or twice a year, and “essentially functions as a rubber stamp for the [municipal] bureaucracy’s homelessness agenda” (p. 95). The book goes on to state: “Toronto advanced many important policy debates and changes in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but the city has since lost its position on the cutting edge…” (p. 88).
5. Toronto may be turning a corner. The book notes that, in 2014, Toronto City Council tasked the newly-formed Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness “to serve as the designated advisory group to the City of Toronto on all aspects of its policy response to homelessness and housing…with the aim of engaging with community stakeholders in a more sustained and substantive fashion” (p. 123). This may give some Toronto-based readers reason for optimism.
6. Government plays a crucial role as a funder of homelessness programming, but government officials have a limited line of sight. Former BC Housing manager Michael Anhorn is quoted in the book stating: “It’s way too easy as a government bureaucrat to sit in our office and look at stats and think you know what’s happening [on the streets] is because of this or that. And, in part, that is because your statistics will only tell you what you measure, whereas service providers are in the day-to-day, and they will recognize trends that are happening before the statistics can identify them” (pp. 83-84).
7. Government officials can be risk averse. Public servants ultimately need to have their proposals vetted by elected officials, who in turn are nervous about risk. By contrast, staff at smaller non-profit agencies tend to be governed by board members who are often more nimble and less risk averse.
8. The book argues that Vancouver and Toronto’s municipal governments have been more directly involved in housing and homelessness than Calgary’s. For example, according to the book: “The City of Calgary has the same key homelessness-policy levers as other cities do—namely, the control over land use and development—yet it has not fully leveraged that control through inclusionary zoning policies such as we see in Vancouver, and to a lesser extent, in Toronto.” (p. 129).
9. The book could have done a better job of outlining the various funding streams for homelessness programs across the country. In Calgary, for example, funding available for the local homelessness governing network provided by the provincial government dwarfs federal funding for homelessness by roughly a 4:1 ratio. And in Vancouver, provincial spending on homelessness exceeds federal spending on homelessness by a 20:1 ratio (if one includes capital funding). These arrangements vary tremendously across Canada. What’s more, across Canada there are approximately 3,700 municipal governments (many of which are quite small); yet, only some of them directly receive federal funding for homelessness. A general overview of the homelessness funding framework early in the book would have been helpful.
10. The book contains a few factual errors, though none of them undermine the book’s main arguments. In Chapter 3, the book notes (incorrectly) that in 1993 it was the Chrétien government that put an end to federal funding for new social housing units in Canada (with the exception of on-reserve housing). It was actually the Progressive Conservative government that ended this housing (in its April budget that year). Chapter 3 also notes that Vancouver’s community advisory body has shown innovation in “being the first to fund low-barrier homeless shelters (no requirement to be clean and sober)…” (p. 65). In fact, the first homeless shelter I worked at in Toronto in 1998 (Dixon Hall Men’s Shelter) had no such requirement.
In Sum: I believe this book is important for people interested in homelessness policy and governance in Canada. Officials in both government and the non-profit sector should read this. So should volunteers and consultants. I also recommend that professors read it and assign it to their students (especially graduate students).
Content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives License
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.