Introduction: What are the Pathways towards Homelessness for Refugees?

As with any other vulnerable populations, refugees in Canada are subject to marginalization, discrimination, employment and income-related struggles, all of which take a toll on their social, physical, and psychological well-being. The needs of refugees are often different from other populations, as many are adjusting to a new socio-cultural environment, a new language, and often lacking in social/financial capital.

Discrimination continues to be challenge for many persons accessing services, and housing is no exception. Landlords, real estate agents, and mortgage financers typically serve as the gatekeepers of housing and if discrimination exists on the part of these individuals, a gigantic barrier is erupted for refugees in regard to attaining adequate housing.

Snapshot of Refugee Homelessness in Canada

In recent years, Canada has been experiencing a significant increase in the number of refugees entering the country. At the same time, the number of refugees among those experiencing homelessness in Canada has been drastically increasing. In Toronto alone, there was a leap from 490 refugee claimants per night in shelters to an alarming 2,350 per night in two years.

The city of Toronto expects refugees to make up 54% of the spaces by November 2018. If refugee occupancy rates in the shelter system remain at 40%, the temporary motel housing for refugees is expected to cost the city around $64 million this year. Here are some numbers:

  • In late 2016, refugees made up around 11% of Toronto’s shelter system. By April 2018, that number has jumped to 37.5% (about 2,351 refugees in Toronto’s 6800-bed system).

  • As of late April 2018, 7,612 asylum seekers have crossed into Canada. This is comparable to the 2,749 asylum seekers that entered Canada around the same time in 2017.

  •  In Toronto alone, 2,683 refugee claimants are housed within the Toronto shelter system, making up 41% of the shelter population.

However, we have also seen positive work being done for refugees. In Quebec, where the majority of asylum seekers are crossing, initiatives are being taken to expedite the integration of these individuals into the job market. The government decreased wait times for work permits from 3 months to 3 weeks alongside creating a triage system allocating people to regions in need of labourers, mostly in rural parts of Quebec.

Service Issues

Shelters and drop-in programs are not properly equipped with the resources to accommodate newcomers and refugees experiencing homelessness. Furthermore, there are systemic issues (i.e. discrimination, violence against women) that occur, which make it unsafe for certain groups of individuals. The shelter system needs to head towards development for a more accessible, appropriate and responsive system in order to accommodate a broader spectrum of people.

The concept of cultural competence seems to be lacking within the shelter systems, although it is a vital framework that needs to be adopted especially when dealing with people from a number of different backgrounds. Cultural competency can be defined as the ability of system to provide care to patients with diverse values, beliefs, and behaviours including tailoring delivery to meet patients’ social, cultural and linguistic needs. Therefore, taking the lessons from “Nothing about us without us,” it is important that we include these individuals in the process and frameworks to be developed.


When considering the various ways to combat refugees’ experiences of homelessness, it is important to recognize the numerous challenges faced by refugees. Unlike other immigrants, refugees are forced to relocate from their home countries, due to intolerable circumstances in their homelands. Taking this into account, services and supports must recognize the trauma and stresses that many refugees endure while trying adapt to a new way of life.

There are supports in place for refugees coming to Canada such as the Resettlement Assistance Program, which provides direct financial help to eligible refugees. There are also various settlement organizations which help to arrange housing and supports.

Meanwhile, a number of barriers get in the way of a refugee’s ability to smoothly transition into their new environment and develop a sense of normalcy. Some of these barriers include: the lack of affordable and adequate housing, the burden of repaying medical, travel and transportation loans to the Canadian government, lack of recognized education or job skills leading to low-wage labour, experiences of trauma, and a lack of social supports or networks in their new environments.

Social supports and services must recognize these obstacles in order to help those who are experiencing homelessness, or at risk of facing homelessness, to gain stable, affordable housing and resettle in their new place of residence. Some of the next steps taken may include the following:

  • Because it is often easier for settlement organizations to find affordable and suitably sized housing for refugees and their families in smaller urban centres, different transportation options need to be available. Some of these options may include: ride sharing, taxi buses, self-service bicycle and car rentals, and coaching for driver’s education (especially for women).

  • Specialized assistance, trauma-informed care and/or counselling may be needed for refugees who have experienced traumatic events, including the process of their relocation.
  • Supports should be put in place to ensure that there are sufficient resources for private sponsors of refugees, particularly when it comes to their orientation and mentoring activities.
  • More affordable housing, including social housing funded by the federal government, could improve the living conditions for many refugees.
  • Adequate planning, quick responses and local initiatives can serve as preventative measures, so that incoming refugees do not experience homelessness.
  • Services that are delivered in a culturally relevant manner are essential, in order for them to be effective. This can help to ease the uncertainty of refugees who may be facing issues such as language barriers, social and emotional isolation, or having issues navigating the institutional systems in Canada.
  • Efforts to tackle landlord discrimination, including requirements such as having a history of Canadian credit, rental history or not renting to families with children, which can especially exclude refugees from the housing market.