Securing reliable employment and having access to adequate and affordable housing are critical first steps in the immigration settlement process. Newcomers, including immigrants and refugees, often face increasing barriers to affordable housing. This puts many newcomers at risk of homelessness because of various factors, including poverty, discrimination, racism, cuts to social programs, unrecognized foreign employment and educational credentials, delays in work permits and/or health related issues. As a result, more immigrants and refugees are requiring shelter, drop-in and housing assistance in addition to settlement services.
The vast majority of foreign-born population live in larger urban centres in Ontario, British Columbia, Quebec and Alberta. However, it is important to note that homelessness among newcomers is not exclusively an urban, inner-city phenomenon. Research studies focusing on homelessness in rural and northern communities highlight the importance of recognizing the distinct needs of newcomers in these settings. However, the high prevalence of hidden homelessness, precarious housing and overcrowding adds complexity to the issue, making it difficult to properly measure its extent. Although the total number of newcomers experiencing homelessness is unknown, communities across Canada are including questions in their point-in-time counts to get a greater sense of the figures.
The needs of newcomers experiencing homelessness are often different than of those who are Canadian-born. Many are adjusting to a new language and culture, lacking in social capital and/or facing unique challenges with respect to housing, employment, health and legal issues. Newcomers struggling to secure employment and housing often adopt survival strategies to navigate their new host society. Should these coping systems fail, they may not only feel an intensified loss of their home but also anxiety, isolation and/or separation from their limited networks, culture, family and history.
In terms of service provision, a study in Toronto found that in general, clients felt that the settlement agencies were supportive and sufficient in numbers. Many, offer a range of programs including housing assistance, youth programming, employment counseling, language training and/or health services. Despite also offering one-on-one counseling, employment services and life-skills programs, a study in Vancouver concluded that shelter providers and their staff tend not to have the necessary skills and/or resources to effectively serve newcomers. On the other hand, rural communities not only lack rental housing, emergency shelters and other essential services for people experiencing homelessness, but may not have settlement agencies to effectively support them. Although there have been no broad systemic attempts to develop accessible and responsive shelter and drop-in services, this is increasing, especially in urban areas.
As part of our multicultural Canadian identity, it is in Canada’s best interest to welcome, support and learn from newcomers, rather than expect them to learn from Canadian society.