"Why was homelessness not a social problem before the 1980s? What was it about Canada's society, economy and institutions that kept most people housed?” 

This question came from Lara C. via our website survey, and it’s a good one! My answer comes from two primary sources that I encourage you to read if you want to learn more about the history of homelessness in Canada: 

  1. Finding Home: Policy Options for Addressing Homelessness in Canada (e-book, Introduction)

  2. Homelessness in Canada: Past, Present, and Future (keynote address in Calgary, 2009)

If we take a historical perspective, the word “homelessness” is relatively new. (Dr. J. David Hulchanski’s take on the evolution of the word is summarized in this Toronto Star editorial.)

The authors of Finding Home, including Hulchanski, searched the New York Times database for the frequency of the word between 1851 and 2005. 87% of articles using it were published between 1985 and 2005. As Lara points out in her question, something definitely changed in that decade. As I’m about to explain, there were a number of major changes to our policies and governance that deprioritized housing and social services.

Find Home e-book cover

Media Folder: 

People still experienced homelessness, just differently

What is a social problem? According to Bob Mullaly, a social problem must: affect a significant number of people; be negative in nature; be something that should be changed; and be something that can be changed.1 Homelessness is certainly a social problem today, but this wasn’t the case before the 1980s. 

Previously, people were still homeless according to the Canadian definition of homelessness, but in fewer numbers and in different ways. In developed countries like Canada, social service providers and governments were focused on rehousing people, unlike many of today’s emergency housing initiatives. As Hulchanski pointed out in his 2009 keynote address on the subject:

“They had housing, although for many, that housing was in poor condition. There were also some transient single men in many cities who were assisted by organizations like the Salvation Army. These men were referred to at times as homeless, though they generally lived in poor-quality ‘skid-row’ rooming houses and flophouses.”

Because people were generally housed—albeit in poor conditions—the word “transient” was used more often. “Homeless” was sometimes used, but nowhere near the same frequency we use today because it simply wasn’t as common.

Housing and social services used to be a priority

The quality of Canada’s housing after the Depression and Second World War was dismal. According to Hulchanski’s address: “Many people were living in poor-quality, aging, and overcrowded housing, often in rundown neighbourhoods. After the War, we Canadians, with our tax money and the governments we elected, revived the housing market, created a functioning mortgage system with government mortgage insurance, built social housing, and subsidized private-sector rental housing.”

Indeed, the Canadian government was deeply invested in adequate housing for all. In 1965, Prime Minister Lester Pearson acknowledged the importance of decent housing in a speech to the Ontario Association of Housing Authorities. He said Canada’s primary issue was: “…the necessity for everybody to have a decent dwelling; not to make all homes mansions, but to ensure that none of them will be hovels. It is only a very rare soul that can expand in a hovel. This objective of decent housing simply has to be achieved in our democratic society.” There was even a Ministry of Urban Affairs throughout most of the 1970s that focused on housing. After the 1973 amendments to the National Housing Act, 20,000 units of social housing were built every year. 

Many of the “social safety net” services we know today were also established in that time: unemployment insurance, old age pensions, universal healthcare insurance, and the Canada Assistance Plan. As a result, people were less likely to live in extreme poverty or be at risk of homelessness. 

Dependence on private market and service cuts led to more poverty

From the early 1980s onward, government priorities changed. Our elected representatives adopted individualistic approaches to policy that benefitted private businesses rather than continuing with notions of collective responsibility.

Cuts to social housing and other programs began in 1984, and the federal government ceased all funding for social housing in 1993. In 1996, it transferred all responsibility for affordable housing to the provinces. In many areas, cuts to housing came with cuts to crucial social services meant to assist people during ill health, unemployment and/or economic downturns. In Ontario, for example, social assistance was cut by 30% by the Harris government, and has been frozen for several years. The gap between the rich and poor in Canada continues to widen, and poverty in general is on the rise.

Service and housing cuts are, of course, linked to Canada’s dedication to laissez-faire economics. As Hulchanski said in his address, we began relying on “an increasingly deregulated society in which the ‘genius of market forces’ would meet our needs, in which tax cuts, made possible by cuts to programs that largely benefited poor and average-income people, were supposed to ‘trickle down’ to benefit those in need. The competitive economy required, we were told, wage suppression and part-time jobs with no benefits.”

The lack of investment in affordable housing combined with a severely reduced social safety net led to people becoming dehoused in unprecedented numbers in Canada. We needed a word to describe this phenomenon: homelessness. Hulchanski explains how the word differs from previous uses of “homeless:”

“…it was clear that homelessness referred to a poverty that includes being unhoused. It is a poverty that means being without required social supports. And it is poverty so deep that even poor-quality housing is not affordable. Canada has always had many people living in poverty. In the 1980s more and more people were not only poor, but also found themselves unhoused.”

In summary, lots changed in the 1980s. Shifting government priorities and a failure to invest in affordable housing produced the complex social problems that contribute to homelessness today. 

1. Mullaly, Bob. (2002). “Theoretical and Conceptual Considerations” in Challenging Oppression: A Critical Social Work Approach, pp. 1-26. Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press.