Several cities across Canada are showing a stabilization or decrease in growth in homelessness for adult single people. However, family homelessness is growing. For example, in Calgary homelessness decreased by 1.3% overall between 2008 and 2014, however, the number of families accessing shelter and short term housing increased by 31% between 2012 and 2014. Nationally, families are a minority sub-group of the homeless population however, they are the fastest growing group and according to Segaert (2012) there was a 50% increase in their average length of stay in shelter and total numbers across Canada between 2005 and 2009. This is triple the average length of stay for the total homeless population.

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Women are the majority of lone parents in homeless families and homelessness for women and families is particularly troubling because of the presence of children and gender and culture-specific vulnerabilities. Women experiencing homelessness have high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, mental health issues and report high rates of sexual exploitation, violence, and assault - as high as 89%. An important distinction between adult singles and families in shelters is the disproportionately high numbers of Aboriginal and immigrant/refugee families. 39% of people in Calgary’s 2014 point in time count identify as ‘other than Caucasian’ however, according to HMIS data from Calgary’s family emergency shelters, more than 85% of families are either Aboriginal or immigrant/refugee families.

Aboriginal families can have particularly complex needs as they are often affected by intergenerational trauma due to the political and structural impacts of colonization, for example, the ‘sixties scoop’ and residential schools. They may also need particular cultural supports and/or support staff with competency in providing culturally safe and appropriate services. New immigrants and refugees are often fleeing violence from war torn countries, have experienced deep and profound trauma and/or cultural and language barriers. Discrimination and racism are further issues that can add complexity to the experience of homelessness for families.

What is ‘good research’ on family homelessness?

In a scan of the literature we identified that there is limited Canadian research examining the impacts of gender and culture on both the incidence and prevalence of family homelessness. We also found limited research that applies a gendered and cultured ‘lens’ to proposed ‘best practice’ interventions that can respond to both intergenerational and/or violence and war related trauma. Gender and culture ‘neutral’ approaches to research on family homelessness are likely not adequate to propose appropriate changes to policy or practice, nor to offer an explanation for the continued growth of family homelessness and the over-representation of Aboriginal and immigrant/refugee families in emergency shelters. 

Researchers from other sectors and disciplines, including researchers interested in family violence, argue that creating community-based supports or implementing policies that were developed in isolation of the gendered and cultured experiences of trauma or taking a ‘neutral’ approach, can actually exacerbate emotional and mental distress. Our research team believes that interventions for families and the policies that guide them need to be re-framed within gender and culture specific vulnerabilities like racism and discrimination, inadequacy of government financial benefits for families, and multi-generational trauma in order to be substantive and sustainable.

In Calgary, we are working on a research project to understand gender and culture specific issues for families in emergency shelters. Our study is using HMIS data and retrospective interviews within a participatory approach to examine ‘lifespan’ issues like homelessness and family violence in order to identify changes to service delivery and public policy from a gender and culturally appropriate approach. We have engaged several service providers, government representatives and mothers with lived experience to partner with us and to oversee and provide feedback through each stage of the project.

What are we learning and what does it mean?

Early results show that mothers have experienced multiple traumatic experiences throughout their lives and have cycled in and out of ‘systems’ as children and now as adults. Poverty, and violence are issues occurring across the lifespan, and yet despite this, mothers have a strong sense of hope for the future and positive expectations for their children.  Of particular interest is an experience of family violence that challenges ‘western’ conceptualizations. For example, one mother talked about growing up in Ghana and having government officials come to her home monthly to “beat up my father and brother in front of us… they were trying to scare us to make us obey”. This led to a deep mistrust for government and authority figures in general. This experience would have obvious implications for a mother needing to access supports and services for herself and her children.

Our hope with this project is to be able to challenge the notion that programs and services designed for the majority (in the case of homelessness - adult single males) and from a ‘neutral stance’ (without a critical understanding of gender and culture specific vulnerabilities) are inappropriate and inadequate to end or prevent family homelessness. We hope to incite debate and dialogue in a way that leads to an approach to family homelessness research that necessarily requires a gender and culturally appropriate approach. Critical research that challenges ‘status quo’ understandings and responses has the potential to lead to alternatives that would otherwise go unrecognized. 

Photo by AJ Batac.