Who are Homeless People?

Homeless Hub backgrounder on who homeless people are.

Backgrounder: Who are homeless people?

Many of us have an idea of who is homeless, and why they become homeless.  These ideas can come from a variety of places, including our own experiences, those of family or friends, or through the  things we read or see on TV.  These different sources of information shape our ideas about who we think a typical homeless person is, but in the end may or may not be accurate.

The reality is that there is no such thing as a ‘typical’  homeless person, and the population is incredibly diverse.  No one is absolutely safe from experiencing homelessness. Very few people choose to be homeless and it can happen to anyone. Homelessness is not just a big city problem, as the causes of homelessness can affect people living anywhere in Canada, in urban and rural areas.  Every community in Canada has homeless people, even if you don't see them on the street. Most homeless people don't actually live on the streets, but found themselves living temporarily with friends or family, or staying in emergency shelters – if they exist in their community.

Homelessness is an extreme form of poverty characterized by the instability of housing and the inadequacy of income, health care supports and social supports.  Homelessness has not always been a big problem in Canada, but has grown into one over the past twenty years. As a society we have reduced our commitment to ensuring there is necessarily an adequate supply of affordable housing, income and support services to ensure that people who experience a range of crises avoid losing their homes.

In this context, the personal circumstances that may lead to homeless are many, and can afflict people from virtually every community.  People become homeless when individual and family problems become insurmountable.  This may include: catastrophic events; loss of employment; family break up; family violence; onset of mental and/or other debilitating illnesses; substance use by oneself or family members; a history of physical, sexual or emotional abuse; and, involvement in the child welfare system.

Yet we must remember that it is not just individual factors that explain homelessness. If we have adequate housing, income and supports, people who experience crises can avoid becoming homeless, or at least will be homeless for only a short time.

Some groups of people are more likely to become homeless.
Working poor and single-parent families with children often live in crowded housing. They may be unable to afford a decent place to live while feeding and clothing their children. About one-in-seven users of shelters across Canada is a child.

Women are vulnerable to becoming homeless as they are often victims of family violence, and are more likely to live in poverty because they generally earn less than men.

Newcomers to the rental housing market - especially young people, immigrants and refugees - are often placed in the situation of acquiring rental housing that they cannot afford, and in many cases are one cheque away from eviction.

Many seniors face eviction and homelessness due to fixed incomes, increased rents and taxes and a decline in physical and mental health.

Visible minorities are often at risk of homelessness due to racial prejudice and employment disparities.

Aboriginal people experience many of these contributing factors as well as: migration; third world housing conditions (on-reserve); racism; loss of cultural identity; and the ongoing intergenerational trauma associated with the residential school system.

Young people who are lesbian, gay and bisexual are much more likely to become homeless, as homophobia is still tolerated in many families, schools and communities.

Single adults and youth may become homeless because of personal challenges such as disabilities, mental health problems or addictions.  However, it is important to note that most people who are homeless are not mentally ill.  It is poverty and a lack of supports that make them homeless.

Understanding the factors that lead to homelessness is not easy considering how diverse the population is, and the fact that there are many pathways to homelessness. More and more, researchers are recognizing that any analysis of homelessness must take account of the distinct challenges that specific sub-populations face. In addition, more community organizations and service providers also now recognize the need to develop programs, services and supports that take account of the specific challenges that subpopulations face.  People become homeless for many different reasons.  It then follows that the services and supports that prevent homelessness as well as help people move forward with their lives must also take account of such differences.   

Asetha Power and Stephen Gaetz, (2009)
Backgrounder:  “Who are homeless people?”
Homeless Hub – Educational Resources.  
York University

Additional Reading:
To explore first hand accounts of the lives of people who have experienced homelessness, visit the Homeless Hub’s Experiences section.

For more information on the following subjects, check out the Homeless Hub's Topics section:
-    Aboriginal people
-    Families with children
-    Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgendered
-    Hidden homeless
-    Immigrants and refugees
-    Seniors
-    Single men
-    Single women
-    Visible Minorities
-    Youth
-    Rural populations
-    The North
-    Homelessness
-    Causes of homelessness
-    Demography and Characteristics of Homelessness
-    Social Exclusion
-    Discrimination

Publication Date: 
The Homeless Hub