This blog post is part of our series which highlights sessions of the 2018 National Conference on Ending Homelessness. Hear Joanna Binch, Erin Dej, and John Ecker speak on Tuesday, November 6th at 1:30 PM. Learn more about this upcoming conference presented by CAEH. 

There is a good chance if you ask a person sleeping outside or staying at a shelter if they have ever lived in a rooming house, the answer would be ‘yes’. Yet many of us working to support people experiencing homelessness may not know what exactly a rooming house is.  A rooming house is a shared accommodation regulated by the municipality when there are multiple rooms in a building (e.g., four or more rooms), that are rented individually and share a bath and/or kitchen. These types of dwellings play an important role in the affordable housing market and the continuum of homelessness and housing.

How do Rooming Houses Fit Within the Housing and Homelessness Spectrum?

When we think about homelessness, we typically think of people who are sleeping rough or staying in a shelter. In fact, the Canadian definition of homelessness, developed by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and their partners, speaks to a continuum of homelessness that accounts for a wide variety of living conditions. The definition includes unsheltered; emergency sheltered; provisionally accommodated; and at risk of homelessness. Provisionally accommodated refers to temporary or insecure housing, while at risk of homelessness accounts for those whose housing situation is precarious, or which does not meet public health and safety standards. In light of the research to date, and hearing from those who have lived and worked in rooming houses, there is a strong argument to be made that rooming houses should be recognized as a type of homelessness.

Rooming houses are often the first attempt at housing for people leaving the homeless shelter, and many return to emergency shelters in their lifetime. Despite this fluidity, most homeless resources target the sheltered homeless and do not consider residents of rooming houses. In fact, people living in rooming houses face enormous challenges concerning health, safety, accessing basic services, and social inclusion.

What is the Rooming House Environment Like?

In a homeless shelter there is access to food, a telephone, working plumbing, heat, and toilet paper, basic needs that are often a struggle to access when living in a rooming house. In Ottawa, for example, rooming house residents are considered stably housed, and thus face significant barriers or are excluded altogether from accessing certain health, social, housing, and economic supports. This exclusion is all the more troubling when we realize the burden of illness among rooming house residents. The rooming house population is a vulnerable group with unique needs who would benefit from the resources offered to people experiencing emergency and unsheltered homelessness, such as Housing First programs, and priority for community support workers.   

What Does the Research Say?

Rooming houses are the ‘lowest rung of the ladder’ without which there would be a drop into absolute homelessness. Rooming houses and single room occupancy (SROs) dwellings provide a crucial form of affordable housing in an era of low vacancy rates and an increasing shortage in affordable housing. In the Health and Housing in Transition Study (HHiT study) the authors compared the health of vulnerably housed and homeless people in three Canadian cities (Ottawa, Toronto, and Vancouver) and found it was inaccurate to divide the homelessness and vulnerably housed populations, as those vulnerably housed spent almost as much time homeless as the homeless group did. Other findings from the HHiT study revealed few differences among the two groups in relation to unmet health care needs, problematic drug use, and medication nonadherence. Differences did emerge around key health indicators:

  • Hwang et al. reported that vulnerably housed individuals had slightly poorer physical health functioning and were more likely to report a larger number of chronic health conditions than people experiencing homelessness;
  • To et al. found that vulnerably housed participants were more likely to report a history of a traumatic brain injury than people experiencing homelessness.

Other research shows that similar to individuals residing in shelters, rooming house residents have an increased morbidity (instances of disease) and mortality (instances of death) rate, with only a 32% probability of reaching age 75. All of this research points to homeless and vulnerably housed individuals as a large, severely disadvantaged group who regularly transition between housing states.

Want to Hear More?

Come to our session at CAEH 2018, as we engage in a discussion about how we can do more to include those living in rooming houses in homelessness research. We want to know what is happening in your communities and how we can work together!