Diverse Experiences of Women Experiencing Homelessness and Poverty

The Canadian Observatory on Homelessness
November 30, 2017

Traditionally, policy and programming targeting homelessness has been based on the perception that homelessness was largely an issue among older, single men. However, as the population of those experiencing homelessness diversifies, the development of policy and programming requires the consideration of needs specific to these distinct populations.  

Many women who are experiencing homelessness feel that the programs they access are more responsive to their funders than to the unique needs of the individuals using the programs. They are calling for direct involvement of women and transwomen in the creation of policy and programming which will affect them.

Input from women is especially important with the rise of poverty and homelessness among female populations. A literature review found that women were more likely than men to experience poverty. The same review revealed that women earn only 71% of the average male income.

When speaking of unique experiences of homelessness among women, it is important to highlight that some women face additional challenges; these unique experiences can be understood by considering their intersectionality.

Intersectionality is a way of understanding an individual’s unique experience by considering various dimensions of their lives. Due to various trauma or difficulties they may face (such as experiencing domestic violence or living with a disability) or their unique identities (such as being an Indigenous woman, transwoman, or a mother), individuals face discrimination or oppression that is unique. As a result, their needs are unique as well. 

Life Experience, Homelessness and Poverty

Domestic Violence

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reported that domestic violence is the primary cause of homelessness for women and their families.

The ACLU highlighted that an abused woman will likely be financially dependent and not have access to a stable income. In addition, she will often have a limited social support network as violent partners use social isolation as a method of control.

If a women experiencing domestic violence leaves her partner, she will have little access to resources. One study found that 38% of women experience homelessness immediately after they leave their partners due to violence.

Further evidence of the role of violence was shown in a homelessness study in Ireland. It was found that 92% of homeless women surveyed had experienced some form of violence in their lives. 67% had experienced violence specifically from a partner. Women are four times more likely than men to be victims of violence by their partner.

These women require resources that would allow them to escape violence quickly. They need adequate financial and social support systems to enable a life of independence and to eliminate returning to their abuser out of necessity for housing and other resources. They also require protection from their abuser; a guarantee for their safety.

Living with Disability

It has been found that 15% of individuals with a disability are impoverished; 59% of those individuals are women, while only 55% of individuals experiencing a disability are female. Meanwhile, 55.4% of those living in poverty without a disability are female.

Another study discovered that women with disabilities face food insecurity, housing instability, and inadequate healthcare at higher rates than those without a disability.

In general, there is a higher rate of those living with disabilities (physical or mental) among the homeless population than among the general population. It has also been uncovered that potential landlords are less likely to rent a space to someone with a disability.

When considering policy and programming for women with disabilities who are also experiencing homelessness, these intersections of experience must be considered to tackle discrimination and meet their needs. Examples of unique needs for this population include accessible and affordable mental health services for those living with a mental disorder, and accessible housing units for those experiencing physical disability.

Identity, Homelessness and Poverty

Indigenous Women in Canada

In Canada, Indigenous women are 2.5 times as likely to experience violence compared to non-Indigenous women. This is a by-product of intergenerational trauma at the hands of colonization.

If an individual is perceived to identify as a female, they are already at a higher risk of violence because they are part of a group that faces larger rates of violence. However, if an individual is a female, and Indigenous, they must face both the oppression imposed on the female, and on Indigenous Peoples. Their oppression is compounded by every part of their identity that is marginalized.

Additionally, history of trauma and abuse imposed on Indigenous Peoples, by European settlers in Canada, needs to be explored and acknowledged by policy makers and program facilitators. It needs to be acknowledged that this history has increased risk of homelessness and poverty among Indigenous Peoples in order to facilitate healing.

Also, Indigenous practices may be helpful in the healing of Indigenous women who have experienced homelessness due to violence or other trauma. The Wellesley Institute had found that Aboriginal women who have experienced homelessness request Aboriginal-led services to better support their needs.

Policies and programs must take into consideration the Indigenous culture, the wants and needs of this population, and avoid the continuous impositions of Euro-centric ideals which are only a reminder of the harms against their people rather than a source of improvement in their lives. 


Transwomen face discrimination and oppression that is different from those faced by cisgender women. Transwomen who experience homelessness are at a higher risk of violence. This violence was not only found to be a cause of homelessness, but it also occurred at a higher rate throughout their lives and during their experience of homelessness.

Additionally, transwomen face transphobia. They may be rejected from their family, friends, and society in general. In the book, Where Am I Going to Go?,  it is reported that family conflict, after an individual comes out, is the most common reason for homelessness among trans youth. Transwomen are found to be at a higher risk of mental disorders than the general population because of the discrimination they face.

Oftentimes, transgender or non-binary individuals are left out of research. When checking off intake forms, staff tend check off which gender they perceive the individual to be, or group them into other, which leaves some individuals underrepresented.

Programming and policy, should address the higher incidence of violence against transwomen, by creating safer environments. Additionally, the research that informs policy and programming, must take into consideration the need for social supports or counselling, which results from societal rejection. To do this, they must include trans populations as a unique group within their research.


Women across the globe are significantly more likely to be single parents than men. While they require more of an income due to extra dependents, they tend to be financially insecure instead. In Canada, a family headed by a lone-female, on average, has only about 50% of the income of a family headed by a lone-male.

It was revealed, by Vlemenickx and Smeeding, that the rates of impoverishment among single mothers in Canada is 2.37 times the rates among single fathers. Connected to this discovery, a study by the Homelessness Partnering Strategy found that about 7% of single parent males in Canada experience homelessness compared to 21% of single parent females.

The Pew Research Centre found that Mothers are more likely to sacrifice work advancement for family matters such as child-rearing. They are more likely than fathers to quit their jobs or take significant time off work for family reasons.  In addition, mothers, more often than fathers, report that being a parent has made it difficult to advance in their careers; leaving them at a financial disadvantage.   

Policy and programming efforts to increase opportunities within the workplace, equal pay for equal work, and accessible childcare would be ideal to prevent poverty and homelessness among mothers. 

Final Note

Women who experience homelessness and additionally: experience violence, are living with disabilities, or those who are transwomen, mothers or Indigenous, all require different programs and policies to support their needs and breakout of homelessness and poverty. 

While we only touched on a small portion of possible identities and obstacles, this overview illustrates the uniqueness of individual needs and experiences. The experience of homelessness is not universal, therefore policy and programming targeted at ending homelessness cannot be universal.


Add Comment

Recent Tweets

Content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives License

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.