Canada now has a shared definition of homelessness – but, do we even need one?

York University
September 10, 2012
Categories: Ask the Hub

What is in a definition? Leading policy makers, service providers and researchers from across the country have long lamented the fact that Canada has no national definition of homelessness. The feeling has been that there is a need for an agreed upon definition of homelessness in order to provide all levels of government and community groups with a framework for understanding and describing homelessness, and a means of identifying goals, strategies and interventions, as well as measuring outcomes and progress.

This week, the Canadian Homelessness Research Network at York University officially launches the Canadian Definition of Homelessness. This definition, created through a collaborative community process, has now been endorsed by communities, researchers and governments across the country.


You might think, “What’s the big deal? Do we really need a definition? Isn’t it obvious what homelessness is? Well, at a certain level, I think we can all agree that people sleeping in parks or under bridges are homeless. However, you don’t have to move too far beyond that for things to get complicated. Is a young person who is sleeping on a friend’s couch because they were kicked out of their home, ‘homeless’? Is someone who is staying in a mental health facility, but who has no home to go to upon release homeless? These are important issues for policy makers and practitioners. In fact, the breadth and complexity of the issues underlying homelessness create a sense that the issue is unbounded, and difficult to get a handle on, particularly because many people suffer from similar individual and structural problems, but never become homeless. This can also create the ‘illusion’ that it is therefore difficult to solve.

A case can be made that addressing any complex problem cannot be done without first having a thorough understanding of the nature and extent of the problem. After all, you cannot measure the scope of the problem without first knowing who is and is not affected. This notion is precisely the challenge that faces all strategic initiatives aimed at addressing homelessness, and our lack of clarity about what counts and what does not gets in the way of creating comprehensive strategies to address homelessness, evaluate outcomes and progress, and share effective practices.

Check out the Canadian Definition of Homelessness. Click here and you will find:

  • The Canadian Definition of Homelessness in both official languages;
  • A one-pager that includes an easy to use table;
  • “Making the case for the Canadian Definition of Homelessness”, which presents the utility of the definition; and
  • A background document that brings together the Canadian and international research on definitions of homelessness.

On this page, you will see a list of the many national, regional and local organizations that have officially endorsed the definition.

Finally, Canada joins other jurisdictions, including the United States, the European Union, and Australia in having a national definition to assist in developing effective solutions to homelessness.

Stephen Gaetz is a Professor in the Faculty of Education and is the Director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and the Homeless Hub. He is also President of Raising the Roof, a leading Canadian charity that focuses on long term solutions to homelessness. 

Dr. Gaetz is committed to a research agenda that foregrounds social justice and attempts to make research on homelessness relevant to policy and program development. His research on homeless youth has focused on their economic strategies, health, education and legal and justice issues, and more recently, he has focused his attention on policy and in particular the Canadian Response to homelessness.  He has recently edited two volumes on homelessness in Canada, including: Housing First in Canada – Supporting Communities to End Homelessness. (2013) and Youth homelessness in Canada: Implications for policy and practice (2013). In addition, he has published a book on community-based responses to youth problems in Ireland and written numerous reports and articles published in a wide range of peer reviewed journals. Dr. Gaetz was Associate Dean of Research and Professional Development in the Faculty of Education Prior to his time at York University, Dr. Gaetz worked in the Community Health Sector, both at Shout Clinic (a health clinic for street youth in Toronto) and Queen West Community Health Centre in Toronto.

Dr. Gaetz has played a leading international role in knowledge dissemination in the area of homelessness. York played host to 2005’s Canadian Conference on Homelessness – the first research conference of its kind in Canada. In addition, York University now hosts the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and the Homeless Hub the first comprehensive and cross-disciplinary web-based clearinghouse of homelessness research in the world. The focus of this network is to work with researchers across Canada to mobilize research so that it has a greater impact on homelessness policy and planning.  Through the CHRN Dr. Gaetz is publishing policy relevant research, including two recent reports on youth homelessness: A Safe and Decent Place to Live: Towards a Housing First Framework for Youth. (2014) and Coming of Age:  Reimagining our Response to Youth Homelessness in Canada. (2014), as well as The Canadian Definition of Homelessness (2012), The Real Cost of Homelessness. Can we save money by doing the right thing? (2012), Can I See Your ID?  The Policing of Homeless Youth in Toronto (2011), and  Family Matters: Homeless youth and Eva’s Initiatives “Family Reconnect” Program. (2011).

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The analysis and interpretations contained in the blog posts are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.