From my point of view, the Canadian Definition of Homelessness is one of the most important research-to-action initiatives that the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH) has undertaken.
In 2012, I undertook a study of the COH’s networking and knowledge mobilization processes. One of the things I sought to talk to people about was the creation of the definition because people at the COH saw it as an important outcome of their work. I couldn’t figure out what the fuss was about, but I was curious to understand. When I started to speak to people across Canada about their involvement with the Canadian Homelessness Research Network (which later became the COH), I was surprised by how many people spoke about the Definition. Defining Homelessness enabled people on the ground to get on the same page about what they understood homelessness to mean or look like in their communities. It was a pivotal first step in enabling communities to enumerate the problem and understand its scale from coast to coast.
Without a common definition, it is impossible to say with certainty whether our efforts are contributing to reductions in the numbers of people experiencing homelessness or not. In research terms, it’s called operationalizing your variables, and it isn’t just about numbers. It is about understanding the nature and scope of the problem. To create the Canadian Definition, a cross-sectoral team of people from across the country drew on all kinds of knowledge (e.g., lived experience knowledge, research knowledge, policy knowledge, and service provider knowledge) to come up with an accessible, inclusive and unambiguous definition of homelessness that would be useful to policy-makers, government, homelessness sector professionals, funders, and academics. For people experiencing homelessness, the definition needed to reflect their experiences and serve as an effective tool to prevent and end homelessness on a pan-Canadian scale. For others, the definition had to be useful in their work and promote better – more just – outcomes for the people they work with and for.
One of the homelessness sector professionals I interviewed back in 2012 said the following, which speaks to the reasons why people seeking to address homelessness saw (and continue to see) the definition as valuable:
“…by having everybody at least on the same page, there’s opportunity for a broader influence on a policy level so whether its federal governments or provincial governments … if we have an accepted definition, then policies will be drafted in a particular way, funding will flow in a different way to address homelessness from that perspective. (With a Canadian definition) when talk about homelessness, you know we don’t have to identify whether we are talking about those who are at risk of homelessness, are couch surfing, those who are one paycheck away, those absolute homeless, everyone’s got those little qualifiers on it which either include or exclude particular groups of people based upon what that definition is. By having an accepted definition where everyone’s of the same page, when we talk about homelessness, we can be more inclusive … it’s a challenge that we have from an organizational standpoint because depending upon the definition of homelessness, it could be inclusive of everybody that we work with or right down to the people who are using our food banks in various communities or it could be very exclusive and just talk about the people who are in our shelters. But when you look at the people who are coming and going from our treatment programs, that are coming and going from our halfway houses, from the family violence programs, … if there is a broader based definition that is more inclusive and you know all of a sudden has people who are provisionally housed or people who are even in a transitional or supportive housing relationship … suddenly there’s opportunity to do more with people and work with them further down the road so that it’s not a matter of discharging them and seeing them in another month when things didn’t work out.”
This also speaks to the importance of an inclusive and precise understanding of homelessness that captures those who are provisionally sheltered or at risk of homelessness and those who are experiencing absolute homelessness.
Five years later, we continue to track the ways the COH and others are moving research into equitable and just changes across this country, and people still mention the role that shared language and concepts play in coordinating effective responses to this complex problem. Pragmatically and conceptually a Canadian Definition of Homelessness was the first step in a series of important changes that shifted the conversation about homelessness and housing in this country as well as the ways that we seek to address homelessness through policy, funding, programs and supports.
But definitions of complex social problems like homelessness can’t be treated like immutable laws. They need to change, as our understanding of the problem of homelessness changes and as people’s experiences of homelessness continue to change. I realized this when I was asked to join an emerging team of researchers in the area of homelessness prevention for youth in 2017. The meetings happen in French and my capacity for French is still weak. But I use meetings with Francophone colleagues as an immersion experience, and my understanding is improving. During an early meeting, when we were defining terms for a research proposal, the Canadian Definition of Homelessness came up. It was squarely rejected by everyone on the team. I asked why, explaining that I didn’t see the difference – in spirit – between the Quebec definition and the Canadian one. I was advised that the centrepiece of the Quebec definition was missing from Canada’s. In the Canadian Definition, homelessness has not historically been presented as a rupture in the social contract – a key political and ethical distinction made by the province of Quebec: “l’itinérance se définit comme étant la combinaison de facteurs structurels, institutionnels et individuels inscrits dans le parcours de vie des personnes menant à un processus de rupture sociale qui se manifeste entre autres par la difficulté d’obtenir ou de maintenir un domicile stable, sécuritaire, adéquat et salubre” According to the National Policy to Combat Homelessness (Gouvernement du Québec, 2014, p.30).
This distinction – that homelessness is a breach or rupture of the social contract – struck me as politically and ethically important. And so this past fall, I brought the idea forward during the annual executive meeting of the COH, when the conversation turned to the subject of a revised definition. When the new definition was released later in the fall, this change was incorporated: “The problem of homelessness and housing exclusion is the outcome of our broken social contract; the failure of society to ensure that adequate systems, funding and supports are in place so that all people, even in crisis situations, have access to housing and the supports they need.”
The range of physical living situations – what the definition describes as Typology of Homelessness – has not changed; but this important ethical and political dimension has been added. For this, I thank my new Francophone colleagues who generously invited me to sit at the table with them, listen in French and speak in English, in an effort to work together for outcomes that demand humble collaboration from all of us.
Summary of Updates to the Definition
Based on national consultation, the Canadian Definition of Homelessness was updated in 2017. Notable updates include: