Who is homeless?

Many of us have an idea of who experiences homelessness, and why they experience it. These ideas can come from a variety of places, including our own experiences, those of family or friends, or through the things we read or see on TV, the internet or in the newspaper. These different sources of information shape our ideas about who we think a “typical homeless person” is. The reality is, there is no such thing as a “typical” person experiencing homelessness, and the population is incredibly diverse; no one is absolutely safe from experiencing homelessness. Homelessness is not just a big city problem, as the causes of homelessness can affect people living anywhere in Canada, both in urban and rural areas. Every community in Canada has people experiencing homelessness, even if you don't see them on the street. Most people experiencing homelessness don't actually live on the streets, but find themselves living temporarily with friends or family, or staying in emergency shelters.

In this context, the personal circumstances that may lead to homelessness are many, and can afflict people from virtually every community. People become unhoused when individual and family problems become insurmountable. This may include catastrophic events; loss of employment; family break up; family violence; onset of mental and/or other debilitating illnesses; substance use by oneself or family members; a history of physical, sexual or emotional abuse; and, involvement in the child welfare system.

Yet we must remember that it is not just individual factors that explain homelessness. If we have adequate housing, income and supports, people who experience crises can avoid homelessness, or at least will experience homelessness for only a short time.

Some groups of people are more likely to experience homelessness.
Those experiencing homelessness in Canada are quite diverse, in terms of age, gender, and ethno-racial background. According to The State of Homelessness in Canada 2016, adults between the ages of 25-49 make up 52% of those experiencing homelessness in Canada. Furthermore, seniors, 65 years and older, make up a small percentage of the population experiencing homelessness in Canada (less than 4%). However, seniors and older adults (50-64)  are also the only groups whose shelter usage has increased over the past decade. While homelessness can affect any number of people, we do know that some groups of people are more likely to experience homelessness than others:

SINGLE ADULT MALES: Men between the ages of 25 and 55 account for almost half of those experiencing homelessness in Canada (47.5%), according to The State of Homelessness in Canada 2013. The characteristics of this group include greater incidences of mental illness, addictions and disability, including invisible disabilities such as brain injury and FASD. At the same time, it is also important to note that other sub-populations certain Canadian groups face unique risks and/or face special circumstances, including youth; Indigenous Peoples; women and families. Because the specific experiences homelessness will differ for each group, strategies to address homelessness must be tailored to these needs.

YOUTH: Young people aged 13-24 make up about 20% of those experiencing homelessness, according to Without a Home: The National Youth Homelessness Survey. However, the causes and consequences of homelessness for young people are distinct from those that afflict adults. Unlike the majority of adults, youth experiencing homelessness come from homes where they were in the care of other adults. They typically come from homes characterized by family conflict of some kind (including in some cases physical, sexual and emotional abuse), disruptions to school and family life, neglect and poverty. Many are in the throws of adolescent development, and lack life experience and the skills and supports to live independently, including the ability to secure employment and housing. Unhoused youth are also more vulnerable to crimes and exploitation. All of these factors increase the challenges in supporting this group, since the needs of a 16-year-old are very different from those of someone older.

Youth who identify as LGBTQ2S make up 29.5% of young people experiencing homelessness. This is important to note because the persistence of homophobia clearly plays a role in youth homelessness, with sexual minorities being over-represented in street youth populations, a result of tension between the youth and his or her family, friends and community. Homophobia by the homeless sector can further oppress this population.

WOMEN: Women make up 27.3% of those experiencing homelessness. Women are at increased risk for hidden homelessness, living in overcrowded conditions or having sufficient money for shelter. A number factors make women more likely to experience homelessness compared to men, including: precarious employment that increases the likelihood of income changes or unemployment, and having to take on additional caregiver roles such as looking after children and other dependents. Women, in Ontario, also experience a wage gap of 30% compared to men, making them much more likely to experience poverty.

In addition, women are also at a higher risk of experiencing Intimate Partner Violence (IPV). Family violence is a major cause of homelessness for women, and while some women make use of Violence Against Women shelters others wind up using homelessness shelters. A 2010 Point- in-Time count of women staying in found that abuse was the most commonly cited reason for admissions (71%) and the majority (60%) had not reported this to the police (Burcycka & Cotter, 2011:5).

When women become unhoused, they are at increased risk of violence and assault, sexual exploitation and abuse (Gaetz et al., 2010; Paridis & Mosher, 2012), which may explain the lower numbers of women in the shelter system. Many women will go to lengths to avoid the shelter system, including staying in dangerous and unhealthy relationships and/or making arrangements to move in with a partner (even when that situation is unsafe) rather than submit to the incredible risk of violence and exploitation on the streets.

INDIGENOUS PEOPLES: Indigenous Peoples (including First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Peoples) are overrepresented among those experiencing homelessness in urban centres in Canada. The experience of colonialism (resulting in intergenerational trauma), poverty, as well as extreme racism in many Canadian cities creates more limited opportunities and greater risk of homelessness. In thinking about how to respond to Indigenous homelessness, it is therefore necessary to consider the specific historical, experiential and cultural differences, as well as colonization and racism: “Unlike the common colonialist definition of homelessness, Indigenous homelessness is not defined as lacking a structure of habitation; rather, it is more fully described and understood through a composite lens of Indigenous worldviews. These include: individuals, families and communities isolated from their relationships to land, water, place, family, kin, each other, animals, cultures, languages and identities.” It is also important to consider the extreme poverty, lack of opportunities and inadequate housing on many reserves as a driver of migration to cities. Even further, Canada’s colonial history, including the  Indian Act, which identified who “qualifies” as an Indigenous person and therefore has access to various benefits, the history of residential schools (which took Indigenous children away from their families, communities and culture and tragically exposed many to abuse) and ongoing discrimination, racism and systemic oppression continue to affect Indigenous access to services, programs and support. While Indigenous Peoples make up 6% of the general population, they are considerably over-represented among those experiencing homelessness.

FAMILIES: Families experiencing homelessness are diverse in structure, with some including two parents, and many headed by a single parent (usually female). Family homelessness is largely underpinned by structural factors, including inadequate income, lack of affordable housing and family violence. Following the withdrawal of government housing programs and decreased supports, more families are turning to emergency shelters. Compared to individuals accessing the shelter system, families, on average, stay twice as long.

Understanding the factors that lead to homelessness is not easy considering how diverse the population is, and the fact that there are many pathways to homelessness. More and more, researchers are recognizing that any analysis of homelessness must take account of the distinct challenges that specific sub-populations face. In addition, more community organizations and service providers also now recognize the need to develop programs, services and supports that take account of the specific challenges that subpopulations face.  People become homeless for many different reasons.  It then follows that the services and supports that prevent homelessness as well as help people move forward with their lives must also take account of such differences. 

Reproduced from: Stephen Gaetz, Jesse Donaldson, Tim Richter, & Tanya Gulliver (2013)  The State of Homelessness in Canada 2013. Toronto: Canadian Homelessness Research Network Press.