Homelessness is basically invisible in our community. How do we get the message out that it really does exist even though we don't see people sleeping on park benches? - Ruth

Thanks for the question Ruth! First, I want to acknowledge that your community isn’t out of the ordinary. Most people experiencing homelessness fall under the “provisionally accommodated” category of homelessness and are what most people call the “hidden homeless.”

Those experiencing hidden homelessness are “people who live ‘temporarily with others but without guarantee of continued residency or immediate prospects for accessing permanent housing.” This includes people who are: staying with friends, family or even strangers; incarcerated with nowhere to go once released; “couch-surfing;” and living in cars, church basements, hotels, motels or hostels. Unfortunately, because these people don’t often access shelters or other housing resources, they’re not included in counts or statistics—rendering them “invisible.” 

As I mentioned above, hidden homelessness is extremely common. Raising the Roof estimated that four out of five Canadians who are homeless don’t live on the street. In our latest report, The State of Homelessness in Canada (2014), we estimated that 50,000 Canadians are provisionally accommodated every year.

Given the prevalence of hidden homelessness, raising awareness about it is extremely important. Here are a few ways that you, and others, can help do so in your communities.

Hidden Homelessness Campaign poster by Raising the Roof
Media Folder: 

Ways to raise awareness

Challenge all misconceptions about homelessness

The Canadian definition of homelessness that The Homeless Hub developed and promotes acknowledges the various kinds of homelessness. It’s been endorsed by many organizations and researchers. Use it to help educate people in your community about what homelessness really is: complicated, varied and more widespread than we tend to think it is. This can happen both in creating education materials and in everyday conversations with people you know. Sometimes, all it takes is some open dialogue to change someone’s ideas about homelessness.

In her blog post about changing views of homeless people, Tanya Gulliver-Garcia lists a number of other strategies to help change ideas about homelessness, including: finding research, sending appropriate videos, hosting workshops, and sharing stories like Emily’s, who was living with her kids in a Niagara motel after losing her home. Conversations can be powerful, but adding other resources to them can increase your impact.

Identify the specific needs in your community

With around 80% of Canadians experiencing homelessness being classified as hidden homeless, you probably know someone in that situation right now. In August, Tanya wrote about the various ways we can identify those people in efforts to start conversations about poverty and homelessness. Asking some of those questions and getting to know the people experiencing hidden homeless around you may help you more concretely assess the needs in your community. 

Leverage existing campaigns and resources

Because hidden homelessness is difficult to measure, leveraging national organizations that already have good estimates are an excellent place to start. One prominent Canadian organization is Raising the Roof, who launched a public education campaign specifically around hidden homelessness. Resources include videos, radio ads and posters.

Additionally, the Education section of our website has a variety of toolkits and lesson plans available. This teacher’s toolkit is specific to Waterloo, ON, but provides a useful template for how to create your own community-specific education package.

We also have the Gallery section, where you’ll find resources in the form of art, multimedia, infographics and more that you can use in your awareness efforts.

Make it local

To really make an impact in your community, awareness efforts need to be specialized and local. This can be done in many ways, but here are a few suggestions:

  • Organize a public meet-up for other concerned people to discuss homelessness, how it impacts the community, and potential solutions.
  • Use timely stories on people's minds to generate conversation and organizing, like cold weather alerts, housing policy changes, or shelter developments.
  • Look at nearby Community Profiles to get an idea of how many people experiencing homelessness have been counted in the area. If your community isn’t represented, initiate a homeless count.
  • Create your own educational guides or toolkits with specific community information.

If you’re having issues getting people involved, think about ways to engage them. Hopefully the conversations you have with those around you gets the ball rolling, but as I mentioned above, Tanya’s post on changing perceptions really highlights the importance of narrative in connecting people with widespread issues like homelessness. Workshops and screenings can therefore be effective awareness tools. One documentary that powerfully demonstrates how close homelessness is to all of us—especially those in southern Ontario and the GTA—is Home Safe Toronto. In it, the consequences of our “new economy” are explored (low wages, no benefits, unemployment) and the reality of housing insecurity:

“For families in economic crisis, the threat of losing safe and secure housing lives out in many ways. Some families are forced to relinquish their homes and double-up with friends or family. Others rush to sell their homes before the bank forecloses on their defaulted mortgages. Tenants who are financially vulnerable are stretched to pay too much rent for sub-standard housing, or face the threat of an eviction notice. Some must resort to seek refuge in shelters.”

Workshops and screenings can be arranged with the documentary, and SkyWorks facilitators can be requested to attend and lead discussions.

Thanks for your question, and I hope these suggestions help!

This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at thehub@edu.yorku.ca and we will provide a research-based answer.

Photo: From Raising the Roof's campaign on hidden homelessness