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 conflictHow 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 thehub@edu.yorku.ca and we will provide a research-based answer.

Photo credit: WorldHelp

Emma Woolley is an undergraduate student in York University's Social Work program, with a background in publishing and digital communications. Her interest in affordable housing and homelessness, progressive approaches and care in mental health, and social justice led her to work with The Homeless Hub. Emma is a widely published freelance writer, with a large portion of her work focusing on gender issues within digital culture and technology. 

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