When the news or social media discusses issues related to homelessness, most often we are hearing from Canada’s major cities – Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, and Calgary, for example. As we develop effective models for housing and homelessness prevention we must understand how these issues translate to mid-size cities that rarely have the same capacity and resources as their larger municipal neighbours. While rural and remote homelessness has its own unique context, so too do mid-size cities (communities with a population of between 50,000-500,000).

The From NIMBY to Neighbour project brings together scholars and lived experts from three mid-size cities in southern Ontario to look at how people in these communities make sense of and address homelessness. To date, we have heard from 86 people from across Guelph, Brantford, and Cambridge – people who are currently homeless, service providers, community members, business owners, and first responders. In this blog, we highlight what people who are homeless told us about living in a mid-size city and how we can use that knowledge to prevent and end homelessness.

Criminalizing the Public Existence of Unhoused People

Sometimes it makes you feel sad. You know, because they look at you like you’ve got the plague or something… They don't say much to hurt you or anything, you just get the look, and that was it. You got these other kids here in town that drive around, bastards, and then they throw eggs at you and they throw milkshakes, they throw food at you. – Person experiencing homelessness, 18 months

Unhoused people spend a large portion of their lives in public. Whether they are staying in a shelter, living in a car, or residing in an encampment, the people we talked to spent most of their time in the parks, streets, sidewalks, and buildings in and around the downtown core. These locations are important for accessing services, health care, people, food, and with considerable difficulty, washrooms. In cities where the downtown isn’t as congested as Toronto or Vancouver, people who are homeless are noticed. The hyper-awareness of homelessness in mid-size cities leads to a significant number of complaints by housed people. The number of complaints to the city and police rose during the pandemic when the visibility of homelessness increased as more people moved outside. People who are homeless in mid-sized cities are regularly made to move along, sometimes multiple times a day, every day. There are very few spaces where they are welcome or even tolerated. While some law enforcement agents are friendly, others are not and ultimately their job is to move people who are homeless from otherwise public spaces – not solve homelessness.

They get a call and they’re just out there doing their job. But some of them [law enforcement] they come and harass you. So let’s say you’re homeless and you’re outside and someone gets a call “hey, I don’t want this person here.” They’re like “what’s your name?” “I don’t have to give you that” “Yes you do or you’re going to get arrested” “you don’t have that authority, I’m not doing anything wrong.” Some of them [law enforcement] get so fed up with this happening every day they start changing as well. That’s what I don’t like. They’re getting paid to help the people, not put them in worse situations. But other than that, they’re not social workers, they’re not psychologists, they’re police officers. So they stick to their job, if someone’s doing a crime and doing something bad okay, but if they’re not then leave them alone, you know what I mean?  – Person experiencing homelessness, 10 years

Communities rely on law enforcement to manage homelessness because few alternative supports have been built up and adequately resourced, especially in mid-size cities where the number of homeless-serving agencies are fewer and generally smaller in size and capacity than in large urban centres. When communities use criminal justice responses to address homelessness, there are long-term effects on people who are homeless and the larger public narrative. It creates a sense of fear in some housed people and at the same time dehumanizes and shames people who are homeless. These perceptions about homelessness are at odds with the common narrative that mid-size cities are tight-knit communities that take care of each other. The over-reliance on law enforcement to move people along and hide homelessness suggests that not everyone is being taken care of. 

Writing  a New Narrative in Mid-size Cities 

If we are going to prevent and end homelessness in all Canadian cities, we need to have the whole community on board. That means changing the conversation about homelessness. It also means tailoring innovations to the unique conditions in mid-size cities. Here are four ways we can do that:

  1. Develop targeted communications strategies to debunk myths about homelessness
  2. Create and fund outreach and peer supports, and mutual aid groups to respond to someone in need
  3. Use the legal tools at our disposal to assert the human right to housing
  4. Build community belonging as a priority in homelessness strategies and responses


This post is part of our #CAEH22 blog series which highlights research on preventing and ending homelessness that is being presented at the 2022 National Conference on Ending Homelessness, November 2-4 in Toronto, ON. Learn more about Erin, Jason, and Jessica’s work through their presentation in the Politics of Prevention session Wednesday, November 2nd at 3:30 pm.