Homelessness and discrimination commonly intersect, as discrimination often acts as a structural precursor to homelessness and, in turn, the experience of homelessness can lead to being discriminated against. Discrimination occurs when an individual is treated differently than another solely on the basis of some characteristic or indeed an interplay of characteristics such as race, sexual orientation, religion, physical disability, mental illness, age, citizenship status, gender, and/or socioeconomic status. Discrimination significantly impacts the options and choices of individuals when it comes to all sorts of things in life such as employment, housing and access to services that all contribute to an increased risk of experiencing homelessness. In addition, people who are homeless often experience restricted access to many of the spaces and places that domiciled individuals typically enjoy, including both public (parks, streets, etc.) and private spaces (restaurants, stores and malls, for instance). One negative consequence is that many homeless people are forced, then, to live in dangerous and undesirable environments, which further impairs their ability to move forward with their lives. Although individuals from any background can experience homelessness, research shows that marginalized populations are overrepresented among the homeless population in proportion to their population makeup in Canada.
Research on housing discrimination demonstrates prejudice on the part of landlords and real estate agents in declining potential tenants based on a host of characteristics, and that despite the presence of anti-discrimination laws in Canada, discriminatory practices are increasingly implicit, rather than explicit. Commonly reoccurring discriminatory practices include:
- Racialized women disportionately discriminated against when seeking housing.
- In particular, single mothers experience discrimination from landlords based on their age, family size, low income, receiving welfare, race, language proficiency and a lack of references.
- Research demonstrates that immigrant populations of Jamaican and Somali origin cited experiencing discrimination in Toronto based on multiple factors in addition to race, including income level, citizenship status, religion and family size when compared to their Polish immigrant counterparts.
- Many individuals are denied housing based on their low socioeconomic status, if they are recipients of social assistance, or have formerly experienced homelessness. When denied housing on these grounds, individuals have stated this being a direct precursor to needing to seek emergency shelter accommodation.
- Due to discrimination based on age and low socioeconomic status, youth commonly experience barriers to acquiring housing.
- One study found that ⅓ of individuals seeking housing will face discrimination and be denied housing based on their mental illness.
- Often times, minimum income or affordability requirements will be imposed upon prospective tenants, to which those who are more likely to be of lower socioeconomic status (youth, people with disabilities, single mothers, newcomers) will be unlikely to meet.
- A study by CMHC found that in Winnipeg, Indigenous populations are commonly denied housing. One in three individuals surveyed scoping out a potential listing were told it had already been rented, thus pushing the individual to seek housing in uninhabitable regions.
- Research demonstrates that LGBTQ2S individuals consistently experience housing discrimination based on gender identity and/or sexual orientation, whether as individuals or as couples.
From these findings, it is clear that individuals who find themselves subjected to discrimination based on singular or variously intersected elements of their identity consistently face barriers to obtaining housing. This is further compounded by the structural epidemic of unaffordable housing in Canada and the magnitude of Canadians in need of social housing. In Ontario alone, 171,360 are on wait lists for rent-geared-to-income units. Indigenous populations specifically are overrepresented in the general population of those in need of housing in all provinces and territories.
Discrimination as a precursor to homelessness however is not isolated to housing alone, but rather is underpinned throughout society and reproduces inequality across all spheres, limiting opportunities for socioeconomic mobility and stability. Factors that deny individuals housing also work to impede employment and educational opportunities, and can lead to an increased risk of homelessness via a lack of stable income. For instance:
- Racialized youth often face discrimination that is found to impact schooling and thus educational attainment, restricting opportunities for upward mobility and breaking free from non-precarious, entry-level employment.
- Employment discrimination based on disability is a widely prevalent issue. Research demonstrates that working-age persons with physical and/or mental health disabilities are less likely to hold paid jobs than other Canadians due to discrimination based on an applicant's disability and/or a lack of supports and accommodations in the workplace.
- Employment discrimination based on sexual orientation commonly impacts LGBTQ2S individuals in obtaining and/or maintaining employment, where one study found that in the U.S., employment discrimination costs $64 billion annually in expenses related to individuals who leave their jobs due to a toxic, discriminatory workplace environment.
- Across OECD countries, employment discrimination based on race is consistently demonstrated. Researchers have found that applications with white-sounding names are 50% more likely to receive a call back for a job when compared to their counterparts with racially or religiously distinctive names.
- Single mothers often face discriminatory employment practices, as potential employers may be hesitant to hire single parent applicants conscious of the demands of parenting and possible conflicts with availability and scheduling, facilitating a greater risk of poverty for this demographic.
- Additionally, due to the stigma associated with homelessness, employers are commonly cited to be apprehensive in hiring individuals who have experienced homelessness.
From this, discrimination as a barrier to employment as well as housing is inextricably linked with homelessness, as it impacts one's ability to obtain housing, work or an education thus contributing to a cycle of poverty that is difficult to escape. However, with the forthcoming release of Canada’s national housing strategy we have an opportunity to implement an anti-discrimination framework that works to identify and combat the role discrimination plays for many Canadians in obtaining safe, secure and affordable housing. In order to have a housing strategy that works for the many rather than the few, initiatives such as educating landlords in non-discriminatory practices, funding regular housing discrimination audits to monitor housing discrimination and providing resources to individuals in order to seek legal counselling when and if discrimination occurs are only a few suggestions towards making a society more inclusive to all Canadians.