How will refugees impact homelessness?

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub: York University
March 04, 2016
Tags: refugees
Categories: Ask the Hub

This question came from Ellen H. via our latest website survey.

During their election campaign, the Liberal party pledged government sponsorship for 25,000 refugees, with private sponsors facilitating the arrival of even more. So far, over 16,000 have arrived in Canada. Some people have claimed that Canada should “take care of their own first,” and have heavily critiqued the efforts spent on refugees. Others have disagreed, saying there’s no reason why we cannot support both groups – and I agree.

It does, however, make sense that many people are concerned about what an influx of refugees means for the state of homelessness overall. As Sharad Kerur’s piece in The Toronto Star summarized: refugee housing needs have shone a light on the dismal state of affordable housing in Canada.

Statistics on Syrian conflict
Media Folder: 
How settlement works

The Syrian conflict has been particularly devastasting. This infographic from WorldHelp (pictured right) illustrates how it came to be and some of its impact. Now, it is estimated that more than 11 million people in Syria have been killed or forced to flee their homes.

To accept a great number of Syrian refugees in a short period of time, Canadian government outlined this settlement process. The 5th stage, settlement and community integration, is the trickiest and sometimes takes a long time. While refugees are moved into transitional housing as quickly as possible, finding secure permanent housing for all new arrivals can take a while – with some families staying in hostels and hotels for many weeks.

The key challenge for refugees is similar to what many people experiencing homelessness face: the difficulty of finding good quality, permanent housing at affordable rates. In addition, refugees experience a significant amount of psychological distress, a lack of social capital, unemployment, and a variety of barriers related to systemic discrimination.

Settlement agencies attempt to address these barriers by helping immigrants and refugees find housing, get identification, and become connected to their new communities. Their services are interwoven because for people new to a country – many of whom don’t yet understand the language – one point of service is key to their success. All refugees who are not privately sponsored get assistance from these organizations – they do not simply “jump the line” in waiting lists for subsidized housing, as John McCallum (Minister of Citizenship, Immigrants and Refugees) has reiterated. Most caseworkers look outside of subsidized housing for refugees, trying to find landlords willing to accept people new to the country. Most find housing within the private market, but are at high risk of taking housing that is too expensive, overcrowded, and/or illegally rented.  

In major cities like Toronto, where there is already an enormous housing backlog, settlement agencies are facing numerous challenges. CBC’s interview with Maher Azem, head of the volunteer housing committee with the Syrian Canadian Foundation, covers some of the biggest challenges, including:

  • Finding two-bedroom apartments for $1200 or less that aren’t in dismal shape, extraordinarily small, or far away from schools and grocery stores (many refugees are families and do not yet have transportation, and public transit in suburbs can be lacking).
  • Keeping arrivals together, as many are not yet fluent in English and rely on each other.

Even though settlement agencies are struggling to keep up – Azem’s agency received 60 new families the same week it found housing for 20 – they are succeeding at helping refugees find housing (mostly in the city outskirts/suburbs), for now. To ease the backlog, settlement agencies in Toronto, Ottawa, Halifax and Vancouver have asked for a temporary pause in refugee arrivals until they can find housing for those who have already arrived, and smaller cities and towns have since pledged to assist refugees.

Helping refugees avoid homelessness

Homelessness, poverty and a lack of affordable housing were issues before refugees came to Canada, and while refugees are at risk of experiencing homelessness (and according to the Canadian definition, many of them currently are), it isn’t clear if their arrival actually increases rates of homelessness.

What is clear is that if refugees are not appropriately settled, they become even more at risk of homelessness than other groups. As the authors of a 2007 Calgary study wrote:

These groups experience higher levels of core housing need than do Canadian born populations for a variety of reasons including lack of credit, transportation issues, unfamiliarity with a new environment, language difficulties, cost and suitability of housing stock and individual and systemic discrimination in housing.

It takes longer for newcomer salaries and wages to match their Canadian-born counterparts, and a Toronto study of refugees found that overcrowding, hidden homelessness and precarious housing are common. A study by Metropolis found that most newcomers spend over 50% of their income on housing.

Given these challenges, one might think housing is the biggest concern for refugees and indeed, it is for some. A 2012 survey of immigrants and refugees in Ontario found that the top concern of respondents was employment (61.8%), followed by English language skills (32.7%), social isolation (26.5%), and finding housing (23.5%). So while a lack of affordable housing is a major problem, we must also consider other factors that can contribute to homelessness, like employment and marginalization.

The answer to ending homelessness isn’t to close our doors to refugees, it is to demand that our decision makers address the serious problems that have been here all along: growing inequality, affordability, poverty, and declining employment opportunities. 

For more information, check out:

The Housing Needs of Immigrants and Refugees in Canada

Canadian government's #WelcomeRefugees

This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at and we will provide a research-based answer.

Photo credit: WorldHelp

Emma Woolley is a 2016 graduate of York University's Bachelor of Social Work program with a background in publishing, freelance writing and digital communications. Her interest in affordable housing, homelessness, 2LGBTQ rights, and social justice led her to work with The Homeless Hub. Emma is now pursuing her Master of Social Work at The University of Toronto, where she is focusing on anti-oppressive, strengths-based, recovery-oriented, and critical approaches to mental health care.


3:05 AM 16/02/2017

Tara hit the nail on the head. My son suffered multiple brain injuries, the kind hockey players usually receive, when he was young. He is exhibiting signs that hockey players show, irritable, outbursts of anger, and I am afraid the constant destabilization he has experienced over the past 15 years with landlord either asking hm for ex for rent, or to sell drugs, or being outright racist against him, is going to push him to suicide, like what hockey player go through. He is desperate for housing that is affordable and where he will not be made to move from every few months. It is classism, form of BIGOTRY.

Refugees who lose everything and risk freezing to death are in no greater urgency for housing than the homeless Canadian who had also lost everything and is a risk of freezing to death. Most refugees came from well serviced tent cities, not the street corner near a heat vent. the homeless have no fully serviced tent cities. Any tent cities they come up with on their own, is destroyed, placing them in higher urgency. Refugees simply are not in greater need than homeless Canadians.

1:28 PM 15/06/2016

Mike, having a home, a "sanctuary" is so important to everyone's self esteem as it gives one a Foundation to participate in life's activities. However, because you at the moment do not have a secure home you are still a Citizen, valuable without having to prove anything at all. Homelessness is a circumstance, not Who You Are. I am so sorry to hear you say the above, so sorry you feel this way. And if any Government official has not listened and not helped you are they truly representing Canadians as elected Officials?


7:26 AM 15/06/2016

In the City that I reside in there are countless homeless elderly men in the City's Core, picking through my garbage at night with no housing. These are Canadian men who have lost jobs or just fallen through the cracks of "normal society". It does not take an IQ quotient very high to figure that we must and should house our Homeless first......It is difficult to find transparency on the costs of Immigrants on a yearly basis. In the City that I live in Immigrants get rent geared to income housing first, before other homeless Canadians. I have Canadian women friends struggling with high rents who have been waiting years for subsidized housing while Immigrants get their housing...Come on Canada....where is the sense in this? There is no rationality.

I repeat, it is great to assist other Cultures when we as Canadians can do so but I repeat Canadians that are homeless....youth, women, people who have lost their jobs come first.....the result of the Liberal Government's influx of "Refugees"....takes a terrible toll on homeless Canadians and because it is not "politically correct" to say this let's just keep on hiding the facts under the carpet, bury our Collective Heads in the sand......


10:04 PM 20/03/2016

I am homeless and have been told by all levels of goverment that as a white canadain born male,i am to deal with it cause i am not seen as human

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