March is International Red Cross month so it seems like a good time to examine the issue of homelessness as a disaster. The Red Cross is one of the largest providers of disaster response across the world and this section of their infographic shows just how often they respond to disasters across the world.

Ready to act when disasters strike. Every 4 hours we respond to disasters big and small. In a disaster, the first 72 hours are the most critical. This is when we provide essentials like food, shelter and clothing.

So what does this have to do with homelessness?

The language of disaster has been used in conjunction with homelessness for a number of years.  Perhaps best known in this realm is the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee (TDRC) which was co-founded by street nurse Cathy Crowe, who in 1998 — after witnessing the ice storms in Eastern Ontario and Quebec — wondered why homelessness was treated so differently when the needs were the same. They released a National Disaster Declaration and a State of Emergency Statement declaring homelessness in Canada a national disaster. This was endorsed by the Big City Mayors Caucus of the Federation of Canadian of Municipalities as well as individuals, faith groups, community organizations, labour unions and municipalities across the country. Some of the issues that TDRC addressed during its 14 year tenure included disaster-related issues such as extreme heat, pandemic flu, TB epidemic and homeless deaths.

Individuals and families are made homeless by accidents or natural and technological disasters, day-in and day-out. Sometimes these are small, single-family house fires. Other times they are large, community-wide natural disasters such as the 2011 wildfires in Slave Lake or the floods in Calgary or in Toronto this past summer or the disaster caused by the train derailment and subsequent explosion in Lac Mégantic.  When we see a disaster caused by nature it is easy to sympathize with those affected because the circumstances are obviously outside of their control. It is often harder to do this with homelessness because the individual factors leading to homelessness often get more attention than the system failures or structural factors at play. We need to remember that people experiencing homelessness are also displaced in large-scale disasters and will have a harder time recovering and rebuilding their lives. They may even be some of the responders

Given that homelessness isn’t always the result of individual actions or behaviours (and is very rarely a deliberate choice) it is important that people affected by homelessness are treated with dignity and respect. In our recent report, “Coming of Age: Reimagining the Response to Youth Homelessness in Canada”, Steve Gaetz says (in talking about wildfires in Kelowna and Slave Lake):

 “Both of these events were devastating for the communities’ residents. They lost their homes, their possessions and their communities. In the face of both tragedies a rapid crisis response was quickly implemented. People displaced by the fire were relocated to other communities and provided temporary emergency shelter in motels, school gymnasiums, local hockey arenas and, in many cases, slept on cots or mats…But, imagine for a second that the individuals and families in Kelowna or Slave Lake were still living in hockey arenas or motels all these years later. That would seem shocking and absurd and most of us would see this as the complete failure of our emergency response – that we really, really let these people down. So why are we satisfied with an emergency response to youth homelessness that allows you people to languish in shelters for years at a time, entrenching them in street life, keeping them from school and undermining their ability to move into adulthood in a health and fulfilling way?”

This difference was echoed by Tim Richter, CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, during the release of “The State of Homelessness in Canada: 2013” report in June. At the press conference releasing the report, Richter stated (as reported in the Toronto Star):

“The results paint a picture of a disaster in communities across the country. In a natural disaster, the loss of housing or life happens because of a fire or flood or something like that. In the unnatural disaster of homelessness, the same things are happening, but it's happening because of poverty, disability, addiction, mental illness and trauma. But whereas natural disasters are met with emergency response plans to get people back to their normal lives, the response to homelessness is stuck in crisis mode.”

16 years after the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee started talking about homelessness as a disaster, it is still a critical issue. 200,000 people are homeless every year; 30,000 on any given night (and up to 50,000 in hidden homelessness). We need to reframe the way we think about this issue.

Awhile back I was at the warming centre at Toronto’s Metro Hall when I saw an individual asleep underneath a Canadian flag. It instantly made me think of a seminal image from Hurricane Katrina of an elderly woman wrapped in an American flag blanket. And it made me wonder, again, why is one considered a disaster and one not?

When will people realize that homelessness is a disaster.

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.