Who is homeless?

Who is homeless?

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, the internet or in the newspaper.  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.

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.
The homeless population in Canada is quite diverse, in terms of age, gender, and ethno-racial background. The Segeart study (2012) identified the mean age individuals staying at shelter as being 37 years of age, and includes children, youth, adults and the elderly. Interestingly, those 65 years of age and older comprised just over 1.7 percent of shelter users, which may be explained by the expanded benefits accessible to seniors, but also by the much higher mortality rate of chronically homeless persons (Hwang, et al. 2009).

While homelessness can affect any number of people, we do know that some groups of people are more likely to be homeless than others:

SINGLE ADULT MALES: Men between the ages of 25 and 55 account for almost half of the homeless population in Canada (47.5%), according to the Segaert study. The characteristics of this group include greater incidences of mental illness, addictions and disability, including invisible disabilities such as brain injury and FASD. Because single adult males arguably form a large percentage of the chronic homeless population, suggesting that efforts targeting this population are warranted.

At the same time, it is also important to note that other sub-populations certain Canadian groups face unique risks and/or face special circumstances, including: youth; Aboriginal people; women and families. Because the specific experiences of being homeless will differ for each group, strategies to address homelessness must be tailored to these differing needs.

YOUTH: Young people aged 16-24 make up about 20% of the homeless population according to Segaert, although the prevalence rates are similar to that of adult males (308/100,000 for youth vs. 318/100,000 for males between 25-55). However, the causes and consequences of homelessness for young people are distinct from those which afflict adults. Unlike the majority of adults, homeless youth come from homes where they were in the care of other adults. They typically come from homes characterized by family conflict of some kind (including in some cases physical, sexual and emotional abuse), disruptions to school and family life, neglect and poverty. Many are in the throws of adolescent development, and lack life experience and the skills and supports to live independently, including the ability to secure employment and housing. Homeless youth are also more vulnerable to crimes and exploitation. All of these factors increase the challenges in supporting this group, since the needs of a 16-year-old are very different from those of someone older.

In many studies of youth homelessness, young people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and transsexual are over-represented, making up 25-40% of the youth homeless population, compared to only 5-10% of the general population (Josephson & Wright, 2000). This is important to note because the persistence of homophobia clearly plays a role in youth homelessness, with sexual minorities being over-represented in street youth populations, a result of tension between the youth and his or her family, friends and community. Homophobia by the homeless sector can further oppress this population.

WOMEN: While the percentage of women in the homeless emergency shelter population is lower than men (males: 73.6%, females: 26.2% (Segaert, 2012:14), the unique circumstances facing women must be addressed. Women are at increased risk for hidden homelessness, living in overcrowded conditions or having sufficient money for shelter, but not for other necessities. In addition, according to the 2009 General Social Survey, 6% of women report some form of intimate partner (spousal) assault (Sinha, 2013:24). Family violence is a major cause of homelessness for women, and while some women make use of Violence Against Women shelters others wind up using homelessness shelters. A 2010 point in time count of women staying in found that abuse was the most commonly cited reason for admissions (71%) and the majority (60%) had not reported this to the police (Burcycka & Cotter, 2011:5).

When women become homeless, they are at increased risk of violence and assault, sexual exploitation and abuse (Gaetz et al., 2010; Paridis & Mosher, 2012) which may explain the lower numbers of women in the shelter system. That is, many women will go to lengths to avoid the shelter system, including staying in dangerous and unhealthy relationships and/or making arrangements to move in with a partner (even when that situation is unsafe) rather than submit to the incredible risk of violence and exploitation on the streets.

ABORIGINAL: Aboriginal peoples (including First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples) are overrepresented amongst the homeless population in virtually all urban centres in Canada. The experience of colonialism (resulting in intergenerational trauma), poverty, as well as extreme racism in many Canadian cities creates more limited opportunities and greater risk of homelessness. In thinking about how to respond to Aboriginal homelessness, it is therefore necessary to consider the specific historical, experiential and cultural differences, as well as colonization and racism: “The urban Aboriginal homeless experience differs from that of mainstream Canadians due to a convoluted policy environment predicated on assumptions of cultural inferiority and forced societal participation” (Belanger et al., 2012:15). It is also important to consider the extreme poverty, lack of opportunities and inadequate housing on many reserves as a driver of migration to cities. Even further, Canada’s colonial history, including the federal Indian Act, which identified who “qualifies” as an Aboriginal person and therefore has access to various benefits, the history of residential schools (which took Aboriginal children away from their families, communities and culture and tragically exposed many to abuse) and ongoing discrimination, racism and systemic oppression continue to affect Aboriginal access to services, programs and support. We find that while Aboriginal people make up 6% of the general population, they are considerably over-represented amongst the homeless population.

FAMILIES: Homeless families are diverse in structure, with some including two parents, and many headed by a single parent (usually female). Family homelessness is largely underpinned by structural factors, including inadequate income, lack of affordable housing and family violence. Following the withdrawal of government housing programs and decreased supports, more families are turning to emergency shelters.

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. 

Reproduced from: Stephen Gaetz, Jesse Donaldson, Tim Richter, & Tanya Gulliver (2013)  The State of Homelessness in Canada 2013. Toronto: Canadian Homelessness Research Network Press.