I’m writing an open-access e-book on homelessness and have just released Chapter 1 titled “What causes homelessness?” The PDF version of the full chapter is available here.

Here are 10 things to know.

1. Structural causes of homelessness determine whether a community has a little homelessness or a lot of homelessness. The more we understand these, the more we can work collectively to reduce homelessness.

2. The major structural cause of homelessness is a lack of alignment between the availability of low-cost housing and incomes. This is complicated by disagreement over three things: 1) what factors are most to blame for the misalignment; 2) what precise policy levers should be used to rectify it, and 3) how such policy changes should be financed.

3. Even in a community with a great deal of affordable housing, some homelessness is still inevitable. That’s because some individuals are unable to maintain housing for any length of time, even when they’re provided with affordable housing with well-funded professional staff support.

4. Other structural causes include systemic racism, colonialism, homophobia, and transphobia. These important factors will be discussed in more detail in future chapters of this e-book.   Similarly, factors unique to homelessness amongst women, youth and other groups merit their own distinct discussions.

5. Individual-level risk factors make some individuals more vulnerable to homelessness than others. If officials understand these, they can: a) target prevention programs specifically at such individuals, and b) design programs uniquely tailored to assist them after they become homeless.

6. One recent study summarizes major research findings on individual-risk factors in high-income countries. The study finds the following characteristics to be especially prevalent among persons experiencing homelessness: a history in foster care; having previously attempted suicide; a history of running away; and a history of criminal behaviour.

7. Discussion about individual-level risk factors can be challenging. That’s because there can be intense disagreement over how many limited resources to target to each higher-risk group (or even whether to target at all) and which order of government should finance the needed interventions.

8. Persons with such risk factors should not be blamed for having them. Children do not choose to be in foster care; rather, they are there for reasons beyond their own control. And in many cases, a lack of housing affordability itself is a reason for some of these risk factors. Similarly, poverty may influence mental health, which could in turn bring on a suicide attempt.

9. Systems failures refer to poorly-designed or poorly-implemented publicly-funded systems that exacerbate homelessness. Examples include correctional facilities discharging persons into homelessness with insufficient pre-planning, and child welfare systems that allow youth to ‘age out’ too early or with inadequate supports.

10. Some causal factors are hard to quantify. For example, it’s not easy for researchers to measure ‘systems failures’ in a statistical model. The same can be said for systemic racism, colonialism, homophobia, and transphobia.

In sum. This is a summary of Chapter 1 of a sole-authored, open-access interdisciplinary textbook intended to provide an introduction to homelessness for students, service providers, researchers and advocates. All material for this book is available free of charge here. Newly-completed chapters will be uploaded throughout the year.

La version française de ce billet se trouve ici.

I wish to thank Sylvia Regnier, Vincent St-Martin and Alex Tétreault for their assistance with this blog post.