According to the State of Homelessness in Canada 2014, there are at least three people experiencing hidden homelessness for every person who is unsheltered. If applied nationally, this estimate of 3:1 means at least 50,000 Canadians are homeless on any given night. Women, including mothers and their children, are much more likely to be among the hidden homeless population. YWCA Canada’s ‘When There’s No Place Like Home states that families experiencing homelessness are largely led by single mothers. Some families choose not to access shelter services because they don’t feel shelters are safe. They may instead be temporarily staying with extended family and/or friends so as not to displace their children from their school/community.
A recent study by Raising the Roof highlights some of the causes of family homelessness, including family violence, a lack of affordable housing, low wages, un/underemployment, and low rates of social assistance. The study also highlights that child and youth homelessness often leads to chronic adult homelessness, criminality, experiences dealing with the child welfare system, and worsening mental health. Childhood stressors and trauma such as family breakdown, poverty, conflict, and abuse are not only contributing factors to child and youth homelessness but also childhood homelessness itself has been linked as a pathway to adult homelessness.
According to the State of Homelessness in Canada 2014, there are a number of signs that a family may be at risk of homelessness, including:
- Unaffordable rental housing units.
- Falling below the Market Basket Measure (MBM) poverty threshold and/or living below the Low Income Cut-off (LICO).
- Experiencing moderate or severe food insecurity.
- Stagnant or declining wages during periods of sustained economic and employment growth.
As these warning signs indicate, for many parents, one illness, layoff, family crisis, or loss of childcare can put them and their children over the edge. Without a national housing and homelessness strategy or comprehensive provincial/territorial and federal action to address system failures, the number of families at risk of homelessness will rise.
The more recent State of Homelessness in Canada 2016 report outlines certain findings specific to families experiencing homelessness, such as:
- Families stay in shelters for twice as long as youth and adults. While the average stay at a shelter is typically less than 10 days, families stay for 20 days on average.
- Homelessness has changed and grown in terms of its scope, complexity and diversity of the populations experiencing it. Youth, Indigenous Peoples, newcomers, people who identify as LGBTQ2S and families are all at an increased risk for experiencing homelessness. Women are most likely to be the head of the families staying in shelters, with the average age of these mothers being 34 years old.
For families with children experiencing homelessness, programs are essential, and often the lifeline that keeps them afloat. As of 2013, the child poverty rate in Canada was at 19%.
Family homelessness disproportionately impacts some groups who experience greater levels of poverty than the general population, including Indigenous Peoples, racialized people, newcomer families, parent(s) with a disability or single mothers. Indigenous children were overrepresented in the child poverty statistic, making up 40% of the children living in poverty across Canada. Service providers, researchers and policymakers are beginning to recognize the distinct challenges of sub-populations and that providing supports and developing better policies will help create solutions to ending homelessness
Programming and services must support parents to overcome a number of personal challenges (i.e. family break up, mental health, substance use, loss of employment) as well structural factors (i.e. growing income inequality, lack of affordable housing, discrimination, low social assistance rates) while promoting and enriching a secure environment for their children. Initiatives include food programs, housing stability programs, and housing retention, as well as other community services such as employment centres, health services, family support programs, and many other services that are not necessarily focused solely on homelessness. However, solving family homelessness requires strategies with focuses beyond basic needs.
Raising the Roof’s study Putting an End to Child and Family Homelessness in Canada lists a number of recommendations for community agencies and all levels of government, stressing the importance of cooperation, overlap and extensive investments. Putting an End to Child and Family Homelessness in Canada also includes a number of policy recommendations for all levels of government as well as service providers that reflect the demands and advocacy efforts by those working in the housing, homelessness and anti-poverty groups. Discussions about funding priorities, sharing of resources, and new models of service provision that draw in all sectors must continue.