Social Enterprise

Social enterprises exist on a spectrum. This blog post will focus on non-profit social enterprises, which are businesses or programs that often work to employ those who have been marginalized from the mainstream job market and individuals from backgrounds that often face discrimination in hiring practices. In this sense, non-profit social enterprises operate to break down barriers, ensuring everyone regardless of abilities, health, mental health or housing status are given a fair chance. In addition to job skills, social enterprises also tend to provide support services such as life skills, counselling and access to other services provided by the organization. In some cases, any profits or revenue generated by the enterprise are reinvested back into the organization and its employees. In others, a blended value return on investment implies that revenue generated by the enterprise can be realized financially by investors and shareholders and also used for social good.  

Although there is no single definition of a social enterprise, the following are common aspects:

  • Social enterprises are revenue-generating businesses, but focus on creating social good.

  • They create impact and improvement in the areas of social, cultural, economic or environment sectors using market-based principles.

  • Income/revenue generated by the business helps achieve the mission, which is the driving force of the work.

  • They provide meaningful employment and training for individuals who may face barriers to employment.

  • Not only do social enterprises work to eliminate barriers, but can also operate services to improve the lives of individuals experiencing homelessness as well, this way delivering social value through the product and service itself.  

  • Social enterprise can be thought of as combining social and economic values to achieve success. Unlike the traditional ‘return on financial investment” used by the private sector or the “social return on investment” used by the non-profit sector, social enterprises are unique in producing blended value return on investment that is not financial or social but rather both simultaneously.

Social Enterprises & Homelessness

How, then, do the proposed benefits of social enterprises factor in the lives of those experiencing homelessness? We know that a loss of employment is one major factor, along with a host of others, that lead to an individual becoming unhoused. Moreover, experiencing homelessness itself and the stigmatization that comes along with that acts as a barrier to employability. Other barriers include whether an individual is facing mental illness that either contribute to or develop after being homeless, unreliable transportation, gaps in employment history, a lack of education and/or skills and so on, such that, employers are hesitant to extend a job offer. And of course, homelessness intersected with other forms of discrimination against substance use and addiction, disability, age, sex, race, sexual orientation, to name a few, make finding and maintaining employment even more onerous. Which is unfortunate, as many individuals experiencing homelessness would take advantage of an employment opportunity if it was made accessible to them.  

From this, and as their core philosophy, social enterprises can and do play a key role in the lives of those experiencing homelessness trying to re-enter the formal labour market, as they prioritize creating opportunities for marginalized populations that other industries do not. For example:

  • The Empowerment Plan in Detroit employs women from shelters who produce winter coats that double as sleeping bags and have been successful in transitioning employees into housing. 

  • Find Edmonton in Alberta provides furniture free of charge to those transitioning into housing by selling furniture to the public and reinvesting the proceeds into housing and support programs.

Benefits of Social Enterprises

So what makes the common elements of a social enterprise beneficial for those experiencing homelessness? One study interviewed 21 different social enterprises across Ontario on their strategies in creating opportunities for individuals with mental illness that were both accommodating as well as conducive to the operation of the business. A common theme among the employers interviewed was the desire to collaborate with those who traditionally face difficulties finding employment in the formal labour market. Employers interviewed also emphasized the positive outcomes of operating a social enterprise such as community participation and, for the employees particularly, the therapeutic benefits of employment, earning an income and networking opportunities to name a few. Similar benefits have been found across varying demographics.

Social enterprise intervention training programs for youth experiencing homelessness have demonstrated many positive results. Youth have reported an improvement in life satisfaction, family contact, peer social support and showed a decrease in depressive symptoms when compared to the control group who did not receive the training. Youth employed by private sector companies implementing a social enterprise framework were able to meet their basic needs (e.g., food, housing, work attire), 67% acquired new skills and knowledge, and for many others it inspired future career goals, bolstered self-esteem, provided networking opportunities, and resulted in a desire to further their education.  The Impact Construction program by Choices for Youth in St. John’s, Newfoundland, that trains and employs at-risk and youth experiencing homelessness, found that of the 35 participants of their program, 70% completed the program, 9 obtained or were working towards their GED, 7 pursued post-secondary education and 6 gained full-time employment in construction.

When done right, social enterprises not only provide an inclusive workplace but also aim to provide supports beyond the workplace to meet the complex needs of employees. When asked about the importance of supports beyond the workplace, a common theme found among employers was the necessity in acknowledging the reality of maintaining a job while experiencing homelessness and if facing mental illness or addiction, thereby responding with the appropriate supports. This facilitates the creation of a workplace that is tailored to the individual and their needs, not the other way around.

Choices for Youth is another good examples here, as it operates multiple social enterprises that work in tandem not only to remove employment barriers for youth but also provide services that work to create a social and environmental good. Through their programs tailored to at-risk and youth experiencing homelessness, Choices for Youth provides programs spanning across crisis response, supportive housing, targeted supports and fostering independence.  

Therefore, in order for social enterprises to work, they need to be tailored to the populations they are employing. For instance, our Youth Employment Toolkit is a resource that outlines considerations when employing youths who have or are experiencing homelessness:

  • Connect employment training with housing stability. Youth should be supported to find or maintain housing, either independently, with the same agency or through a community partner. However, there should be no risk of eviction if the youth fails to complete the training program.

  • Provide start-up costs including transportation, work clothing and necessary supplies/equipment.

  • Provide life skills training to assist the youth with development of practical skills that will serve them after the program is complete. In particular, obtaining a bank account and developing a budget, creating a resume, interview skills etc. are key for a youth employment program.

  • Figure out a plan to address issues of lateness and attendance. These present particular challenges for street-involved youth who may not have the same ability to adhere to a structured routine as housed youth.

  • Build in access to education – especially a GED – if possible. This will help improve outcomes after the program for the young person. Support a young person’s goals for future educational attainment. This could include discussing educational programs, assisting with applications and applying for scholarships.

  • Create opportunities for job shadowing/mentorship so that youth can see what a program looks like in a real world application.


Despite the benefits listed, social enterprises do not exist in a vacuum and of course are constantly subject and vulnerable to market pressures, which is commonly cited as a challenge of social enterprises in striking a balance between altruistic intentions and broader free market demands. For instance, research demonstrates that it is common among social enterprises to abandon social good for profit - leaving behind individuals with the most complex needs who perhaps do not fit the mould of the ‘model’ productive worker. On the other hand, for those who do not fit the mould of the ‘model’ worker, this is where the role of other supports and programs factor in to ensure that individuals who perhaps are not ‘job ready’ have the supports to transition into the private sector should they so wish.

Importantly, homelessness cannot be eradicated solely by interventions focused on individuals who have experienced homelessness and their ability to re-enter the formal work force, but rather hold the structural failures accountable for exacerbating the conditions that lead to homelessness in the first place. The shrinking of Canada’s social safety net, the substitution of manufacturing jobs with service-sector, precarious, low-wage labour and the scant availability of affordable housing all need to be addressed. Social enterprises, along with other crucial initiatives like a living wage, Housing First and mental health and/or addictions supports that incorporate ongoing personalized supports and choice are all part of the puzzle. Thus, consistent, reliable funding for social enterprises, social services, mental health supports, health care and investment in non-precarious labour not contingent upon market failures but rather the social good are all integral to a preventative framework and cannot stand separately from each other in combating homelessness.

If interested in starting a social enterprise, take a look at these:

Canada Business Network - Start and Grow a Social Enterprise

Social Enterprise Council of Canada - Working together to advance and support social enterprise in Canada