Research Matters Blog

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub: York University
March 06, 2015
Categories: Ask the Hub

According to Oxfam, poverty and homelessness are worldwide concerns. Results from a poll of 24,000 people over 24 countries showed the two issues are top-tier concerns for people in 15 countries (including Canada). On average, more than 80% of respondents in those countries stated poverty and homelessness were at least “somewhat serious.”

For people working in shelters, supportive housing organizations and other social services, poverty and homelessness are always considered extremely serious issues. But given their complexity, what are the workers’ priorities? 

These will vary from person to person, as well as from agency to agency—for example, some will focus more on solutions for certain populations, such as Aboriginal peoples, seniors, or youth—but workers tend to share some common priorities.

Homeless Link top concerns about preventing homelessnessHomeless Link, a UK-based membership organization for charities working with people experiencing homelessness, recently conducted a poll on the top concerns that workers have. Here’s a quick snapshot of what workers said they prioritized:

  1. Prevention: Two years ago, Homeless Link found that 7 out of 10 workers prioritized prevention. In 2015, this rose to 9 out of 10.

  2. Accommodations: There is a lack of suitable and affordable long-term housing for people trying to leave shelters.

  3. Health: Mental and physical health is related to poverty and homelessness.

  4. Funding: Like in North America, funding for housing services has been drastically reduced in the U.K.

  5. Welfare reform: To provide vulnerable people with additional support.

These concerns are common amongst people working in the homelessness sector, and echo what Stephen Gaetz, Tanya Gulliver-Garcia, and Tim Richter wrote about in the State of Homelessness in Canada 2014 report. Their priorities included:

  • Shifting from a short-term, emergency model to one that prevents homelessness

  • Creating more affordable housing, as well as on- and off-reserve housing specifically for Aboriginal peoples

  • Funding to support people who are chronically and episodically homeless

Similarly, the 4 core elements outlined by the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness in A Plan, Not a Dream: How to End Homelessness in Ten Years are:

  1. Plan for outcomes: Evaluating research and success of programs

  2. Close the front door: Preventing homelessness in the first place

  3. Open the back door: Creating opportunities for people to transition to long-term housing

  4. Build the infrastructure: Decreasing poverty and increase affordable housing.

Working conditions

People working in social services are aware of what needs to be done about homelessness, but their working conditions often make achieving this goal very difficult.

Over the past eight years, Canada’s federal government has made deep cuts into social programs that were built over generations. (A great summary can be found over at the Toronto Star.) Less support, decreased investments in affordable housing and growing job insecurity has made more people vulnerable to homelessness and increased the number of people workers try to assist.

At the same time, many workers are being scrutinized and managed in ways that make it quite difficult to help other people. Growing caseloads and the rise of casual contract work have, in many organizations, decreased workers’ capacities.

Donna Baines, a social worker and educator, conducted a multi-year study in three provinces to find out what social workers top concerns were in a climate of funding cuts, punitive measures, and new public management. When asked what one thing they would change if they could, social workers mentioned regaining their vision of social justice. They also mentioned making services more effective by becoming proactive, preventative and holistic.

Ending homelessness and poverty is possible, but there will be many roadblocks along the way. What are the top priorities in your organization or community that might help or hinder your work?

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.

Photo credit: Homeless Link

" addressing the root causes of homelessness... we can prevent the cycle of poverty and homelessness experienced by families..."Beyond Housing First: A Holistic Response to Family Homelessness in Canada is part of Raising the Roof’s national Child and Family Homelessness Initiative.

Providing families with housing is the first step in helping them escape homelessness and gain stability in their lives. With its ‘meet you where you’re at’ approach, Housing First is a means of early intervention for families who are already experiencing or are at imminent risk of homelessness. The Housing First model has demonstrated that once individuals have been housed, wraparound client-driven services support participants from the perspective of employment, addictions, mental health, education, and establishing community connections.

While this method has been identified as a successful and effective way to assist those currently experiencing homelessness, what would it mean to genuinely prevent homelessness from occurring? Furthermore, how we can ensure that the systems and structures are put in place so that workers are better able to assist Housing First participants achieve long-term success?

Homelessness is not an issue that occurs in a vacuum, but one that intersects with multiple social concerns. This includes poverty and Canada’s declining social safety net. If we are able to address the root causes of homelessness - such as affordable housing, income, food security, discrimination, and violence – perhaps we can prevent the cycle of poverty and homelessness experienced by families and eventually eliminate the need for Housing First.

To date, most strategies have focused on homelessness as an isolated issue and reactively developed temporary solutions, but have yet to address the primary causes of homelessness. While some headway has been made in provinces such as Ontario, with the newly released Poverty Reduction Strategy that includes ending homelessness as part of their mandate, and Alberta, where youth homelessness has been made a priority, much greater buy-in from government is needed. Until complex societal issues such as affordable housing, income, and food security are addressed, families will continue to ‘fall through the cracks’ into homelessness and graduates of Housing First programs may once again become vulnerable.

In addition, the complex systems and services provided to families experiencing poverty or homelessness must be better coordinated. This includes income assistance programs, education, child welfare, and social housing, among others. It must also be noted that a lack of overall services has resulted in decreased success among Housing First ‘graduates’ and other program participants.

To assist those at-risk and provide them with opportunities to escape the cycle, these services must be supported and implemented in a way that matches the unique needs of families experiencing homelessness. Coordinating a systems-response is imperative. The fragmented coordination between provincial and federal systems-level responses has often prevented individuals from receiving the support they require. Systems and services need to act as a support and not a barrier in order to ensure the long-term success of prevention initiatives and Housing First programs.

Currently, a strong focus on Housing First programming (an early intervention response) has overshadowed the importance of essential programming and supports. We need to break the cycle of homelessness. The only way to do this is through a holistic approach that includes prevention, systems-response, and early intervention as a direct response to ending homelessness in Canada.

Raising the Roof's infographic

Poll: Ontarians reject the “Safe Streets Act”, and find it unsuitable for dealing with homelessnessThe results of a recent province wide poll suggest that Ontarians broadly reject the use of the “Safe Streets Act” and policing as an effective way of dealing with homelessness. In fact, a strong majority of Ontarians (56%) reject the Safe Streets Act, while only one quarter (26%) support this law.

Instead, Ontarians argue for better access to affordable housing, employment, mental health and addictions supports and an investment in prevention so that people don’t become homeless in the first place.  It is clear that the use of policing and ticketing is the least preferred option for addressing homelessness. 

The poll was conducted by Mainstreet Technologies on behalf of the Coalition for the Repeal of Ontario’s Safe Streets Act (CROSSA). On February 22, 2015, 2,797 Ontario residents were interviewed by Interactive Voice Response.  This poll carries a margin of error of +/- 1.85%, 19 times out of 20. 

The Ontario Safe Streets Act or SSA is a provincial law in Ontario (S.O. 1999, CH. 8).  The SSA came into effect in 2000 in response to the growing number of visibly homeless individuals in cities across the province during the 1990s. The SSA is designed to address panhandling, squeegeeing and other forms of solicitation undertaken in an “aggressive manner … a manner that is likely to cause a reasonable person to fear for their safety and security”.  Unfortunately, the language of the act is rather vague, giving law enforcement officials broad discretion in its application. 

After fifteen years, it is time to review and repeal this Act.  The Coalition for the Repeal of Ontario’s Safe Streets Act (CROSSA) has argued that the Act is unnecessary and unjust. The Coalition is made up of ten member organizations including the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (York University), Justice for Children and Youth, and many individual Ontarians, including former Ontario Attorney General, Michael Bryant.

Dr. Stephen Gaetz, Director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, suggests it is time to repeal what is essentially a bad and discriminatory law:

“The Safe Streets Act is an example of the worst kind of approach to addressing homelessness.  Rather than provide people with housing and the supports they need, we give people who are living in extreme poverty tickets they cannot pay.  This kind of law essentially criminalizes homelessness, rather than address a real problem.  Our own research has shown that in Toronto alone, over 67,000 SSA tickets were issued between 2000 and 2010, amounting to over four million dollars of debt for homeless persons. Moreover, the minimum cost of issuing these tickets is over a million dollars. These costs have been incurred by the City for the collection of only $8,086.56 in fines paid over that same period. So, not only is this a bad law, it is a waste of taxpayers’ money.”


“Ontarians think this a bad law.  Liberals should scrap it.”  

Michael Bryant, former Ontario Attorney General

“Politely asking people for help shouldn’t ever be illegal, but in Ontario it is. That’s horrible and it’s clear from this poll that people in Ontario want a change”. 

Joanna Nefs, Barrister and Solicitor, Fair Change Community Services

“This law is punitive and damaging, it doesn’t protect us from any actual harm, but it does do harm to the poorest of the poor in our communities”.

Mary Birdsell, Justice for Children and Youth


March 02, 2015
Categories: Topics

Image of a statue holding its head.Trauma may be defined as an event outside the range of usual human experiences that would be markedly distressing to almost anyone and cause victimization. This includes a serious threat to his or her life or physical integrity; a serious threat to harm his or her children, spouse or close relatives or friends; the sudden destruction of his or her home and community; or seeing another person seriously injured or killed in an accident or by physical violence. 

Trauma can destroy the trust relationship of the victim with themselves and the world. This creates an inordinate amount of stress on the mental, emotional and physical capacities of the victim whose coping behaviours and belief structures have been shattered by trauma. The victim no longer knows how to act or what to expect from the world in order to survive. Their unique living conditions and life histories make homeless people particularly vulnerable to traumatic events. This physical or psychological trauma may precede or follow the onset of homelessness 

Homelessness is associated with a variety of traumatic social problems, including family breakdown and abuse, adverse childhood experiences, foster care, youth pregnancy and inadequate parenting skills, and child development problems. Homeless adults typically experienced sexual and physical abuse as children. For women, escape from domestic violence is a frequent cause for homelessness. While homeless youth come from all classes, most come from families where physical abuse, exacerbated by long term unemployment and parental drug and alcohol use is the norm. Effectively reducing child abuse may significantly reduce the number of homeless people. 

Trauma and victimization continues for a person that ends up homeless. The most frequent violent trauma occurring among homeless women is rape. The most common violent trauma among homeless men is assault. The homeless with mental illnesses are more susceptible to trauma. They tend to wander in public places, display detachment and respond slowly to events due to their depression. Being homeless precipitates more traumatic experiences and the cycle is difficult to end. 

Numerous studies have established that homeless people experience high levels of violence and victimization. Homeless people are more often victims of crime than housed people. In research, many homeless people, regardless of gender or age, have reported experiences of physical assault or aggression (sometimes by police), sexual assault, sexual harassment, and/or rape. Rough sleepers are especially vulnerable to being victimized. 

Most homeless people that are victims of crime choose not to report it to the police, for a number of reasons. They have been dissatisfied with the response of police in the past (ineffective or uninterested), they mistrust the police and are not in a good position to challenge mistreatment, or they fear retribution for “squealing”. Violations of street culture may result in retaliation from other homeless people, drug dealers or pimps. 

People who are homeless suffer from a lack of guardianship, increased exposure to criminals, and the inability to avoid dangerous areas. All of these factors increase an individual’s vulnerability to crimes that include assault, robbery, theft, vandalism and sexual assault. In turn, homeless people adapt and survive by committing their own offenses such as carrying weapons or seeking their own retribution against criminals, as relations with law enforcement are typically strained.

Photo credit: Flickr/quinnanya

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub: York University
February 27, 2015
Categories: Ask the Hub

This question came from Joy via our latest website survey. Though she specifically asked about divorce, I’ll respond with information on general relationship breakdown as well, as not all people are legally married.

Oh, how I wish I could just give you statistics. Due to the complicated nature of homelessness and inaccurate population counts, we don’t have solid numbers on how divorce and relationship/family breakdown contribute to homelessness.

Avalon Housing's triggers of homelessness graphicAccording to Homeless Link and Crisis, relationship breakdown—be it between partners, family members, and/or friends—is the number one reported cause of lost accommodations. Avalon Housing, a U.S. supportive housing organization, estimates it triggers homelessness 10% of the time (pictured right). Chamberlain and Guy’s study on pathways to adult homelessness found that of the five “main pathways” to homelessness, family breakdown accounted for 11% of instances. A report from the Parliament of Canada also lists marital breakdown as a key “risk factor” for homelessness, citing Finnie’s analysis that after divorce, 40% of women are in worse economic circumstances and are three times as likely to live in poverty. For Indigenous people living on reserves, marital breakdown often meant one spouse (often with children) had to leave the reserve entirely, putting them at risk of homelessness.

Sudden breakups or divorces are often traumatic, life-altering circumstances that contribute to homelessness for many reasons: loss of combined income, legal fees, extra payments, and so on. Both men and women are affected by relationship breakdown, but describe their experiences differently. One Canadian study found that women reported becoming homeless due to social circumstances or leaving bad/abusive relationships, while men more often framed their actions as “walking away” from situations. In almost all of the interviews, participants described other non-relationship factors that also contributed to their homelessness.

One particularly vulnerable population is older people. A Canadian study on older people frequenting homeless shelters found that family breakdown is more of a contributor to homelessness for people over 65. Older women who are separated, widowed or divorced are particularly vulnerable (as I wrote before) due to a variety of factors that result in financial instability.

This is also the case outside of North America. A 2004 UK study reported that the rise of divorce contributed to more homelessness in people over the age of 50. A news report on the study stated that over 27,000 householders became homeless directly because of relationship breakdown, but the study outlines other causes as well: negative outcomes in investing and economic difficulties, to name a few.

While family and relationship breakdowns are significant factors in many people losing their housing, we have to also be mindful of how they relate with other causes of homelessness, like structural factors and systems failures.

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.

Photo credit: Avalon Housing


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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.