One of the challenges in understanding and responding to homelessness is that it is often framed as an urban, inner-city phenomenon. With the majority of the Canadian population living within two hundred kilometers of the United States border, most infrastructure investments have been made in larger cities. These investments include the building of shelters, drop-in centres, housing and the provision of essential services for the homeless population. To date, most research on homelessness has concentrated on urban populations, but in recent years, research from rural and northern communities has begun to emerge.
Who is Homeless?
The factors that lead to homelessness in cities can also lead to homelessness in rural areas and small communities of northern Canada. These factors include a lack of rental housing, poverty, discrimination, violence, mental health and substance use. However, the literature is limited and further research is required to better understand the distinct needs of women and their children, youth, immigrants, refugees and seniors in rural settings.
In Canada, Indigenous Peoples are over-represented in the homeless population. However, the extent of this is unknown in rural communities (not including the North). The literature frequently reports Indigenous Peoples’ housing and homelessness as a separate issue that requires examination within the context of colonialism and its legacies. In addition, researchers have reported on regional migration patterns, the need for affordable housing and the role of mental health and substance use, violence, unemployment, and the child welfare system in perpetuating homelessness. Research points to the need to recognize the factors and needs of Indigenous Peoples on and off reserves in rural and northern settings.
Homelessness in the North is a complex issue. First, the high costs of the region and the severe lack of social infrastructure makes homelessness difficult to address without significant financial commitment. Second, the high level of poverty in the North means that there are increased pressures on individuals and families to be able to provide for themselves. Third, the cold experienced during the winter makes surviving without shelter impossible, often forcing people to live in spaces unfit for human habitation.
When people in rural areas or northern communities face homelessness, they may choose to couch surf or even endure unbearable situations including abuse or living in overcrowded homes. Referred to as being hidden homeless, this population doesn’t access homeless supports and services even though they are improperly housed, thus hindering the further development and funding of these services. The lack of services and supports means that many are otherwise forced to leave their community and migrate to a larger urban area in order to access services. Relocating may mean escaping one set of problems, but can lead to others including isolation and/or unemployment. Additionally, service providers in larger towns close-by are stretched thin by the influx of rural residents seeking services.
Other challenges in rural and northern homelessness:
- Non-existent public transportation makes it difficult to access everyday services and get to and from work without a car.
- The lack of privacy may lead to the stigmatization of people experiencing homelessness as “problem individuals”. This reduces their already limited options in finding a landlord who will rent to them as well as an employer who will hire them.
- A study found that the boom and bust cycles of the energy and mineral sector increase the living costs beyond affordability for vulnerable local residents in communities reliant on these sectors for economic prosperity.
- Relationship breakdowns may lead to additional challenges for partners who depend on each other for the maintenance and income generating activities of the farm.
- The lack of information from some areas makes it difficult to assess the specific nuances of some regions. Without evidence-based solutions at the policy levels, the responses to rural and northern homelessness will remain limited.
The unique context of rural and northern communities requires specific approaches meeting the local dynamics and environment. Ending homelessness in rural and northern communities is absolutely possible, and a number of them have stepped up their leadership to make this happen:
- In Banff, Alberta, the Homelessness to Housing Coalition has been providing longer stays for those in need in the past few years. With new funding, they have been able to support clients with job search assistance as well as create a bridging and loan program assisting clients secure long-term housing.
- Youth in Seabird Island Band in British Columbia are benefiting from their Youth Job Readiness Program. The program supports on-reserve youth ages 18 to 24 with skills training and finding meaningful jobs that fit with their long-term goals.
- Since 2008, the Small Communities Homelessness Fund in the Northwest Territories has been helping northern communities create their own solutions to homelessness and build capacity at the local level. A number of Indigenous-led organizations have been able to provide meal programs, food vouchers and renovate their shelters over the years.
- A number of rural communities in Newfoundland have each hired an outreach worker whose main focus is to liaise with landlords to ensure clients remain housed.
- And in 2012, the community of Steinbach, Manitoba, pooled funds to open a shelter in a single family residential home. Longer term, single family homes could be operated as affordable housing.
These are just a few examples of the many rural and northern initiatives addressing homelessness.
As we mark National Aboriginal Day, communities across Canada are sharing Indigenous and northern success stories in reducing poverty, fostering education and preventing violence through community-led projects while celebrating the outstanding contributions of First Nations, Métis and Inuit Peoples. It is an important time to discuss the concerted efforts required to best meet the needs of Indigenous communities while acknowledging their leadership in improving the health and social wellbeing of rural and northern communities across Canada.