[in]visible: Single Women’s Experiences of Chronic Homelessness in Hamilton

McMaster University and Women's Housing Planning Collaborative
August 30, 2018

About the Project:

[in]visible is a large scale qualitative and arts-based research project investigating the experiences and housing needs of women without children in their care, who have been homeless for one year or longer in Hamilton, Ontario. The project worked with community partners in the city including non-profit organizations, advisory boards and researchers.

Recruitment criteria 

Woman-identified, 18 years old or older, not currently caring for children and one or more consecutive years of homelessness in the past two years (chronically homeless).

We collected data from a total of 70 unique women

Project design

We collected data for the [in]visible project three times over a one year period. 

Narrative Interviews – April – May 2017

Forty women participated in semi-structured interviews, focusing on experiences of housing and homelessness in Hamilton. These interviews were audio-recorded, transcribed and analyzed by the research team and through NVivo software. 

Arts-based brainstorming sessions – October-November 2017

Thirty-four women met in groups of 8-12 to participate in arts-based brainstorming sessions. 

Over two-hour meetings, women engaged in conversation about findings from the interview data and used artistic mediums (polaroid camera, markers, written word, recorded word, collaging, etc.) to depict what they imagine as ideal permanent housing.

Follow Up Interviews – December 2017 – January 2018

Six women from the original interviews had a follow-up interview, focusing on brainstorming permanent housing options for ‘single’ women experiencing chronic homelessness based on their own experiences and the findings from this study.

Key Findings from 40 Interviews with Women Experiencing Chronic Homelessness 

The findings from this study offer insight into the ways women experience and navigate homelessness throughout their lives.  Women’s stories illustrate lengthy histories of unresolved homelessness, complex routes into homelessness and gendered-based strategies of remaining invisible while on the streets. This section shares some of the key findings from the forty narrative interviews, focusing on women’s experiences of homelessness and housing insecurity in Hamilton. 

Women’s unresolved and chronic homelessness 

During the interviews, women were asked about:

  1. How many years it has been since they had permanent housing
  2. Any historical experiences of housing instability and chronic homelessness

Our findings showed women had experienced long periods of unresolved homelessness, had relied on temporary accommodations, shelters and their own survival techniques. 

  • 34% of women have been without permanent housing for four years or longer
  • 15% of women describe more than 25 years of consecutive homelessness

We also learned that many women had experienced multiple periods of housing instability and homelessness throughout their lives. 

  • 85% of women have experienced homelessness at another point in their lives
  • 48% of women report experiencing homelessness for the first time before the age of 18

Routes into homelessness for women 

During the interviews, women were asked about:

  • What they believe caused their first experience of homelessness
  • What they believe is causing their current experience of homelessness

For women who had been homeless before the age of 18, stories about family violence, involvement with the child welfare system and young motherhood were common.  

  • 20% of women identified running away from group homes and foster care as one of their first experiences of homelessness

Violence was one of the leading causes of women’s chronic homelessness for participants in this study, however it is important to make a distinction between intimate partner violence and the other forms of violence women are experiencing. 

  • 30% of women described violence outside the context of intimate relationships (family of origin, adult children, roommates, landlords etc.) as the leading cause of their current homelessness
  • 25% of women described leaving an abusive relationship as their route into homelessness

Women described being evicted, coping with the death of loved ones, experiencing floods/fires, losing custody of their children and long-term hospitalization and incarceration as some of the common routes into homelessness. 

  • 45% of women described more than three occasions where they have secured market rent/subsidized housing and end up experiencing eviction

Women’s strategies to remain [In]visible while homeless 

During the interviews, women were asked about:

  1. Experiences of ‘sleeping rough’ (living outdoors, in tent cities and in abandoned buildings)
  2. Any strategies women used to avoid sleeping rough when shelters and other resources were not available

60% of women had spent one or more nights sleeping on the streets

40% of women had always found somewhere indoors to sleep

Throughout the interviews women described the ways they avoided street homelessness when the shelters were full and they had exhausted their financial resources. Common ways women avoided sleeping outdoors include:  staying with family and friends, remaining in abusive partnerships, living in their cars, motels or storage units, trading sex, care and companionship for accommodations, staying in bus stations, hospital waiting rooms and fast food restaurants. 

Women’s Recommendations for Permanent Housing

Women-centred

  • 40% of women identified their ideal permanent housing as being women-only.

Our findings show a need to invest in the development of women-specific permanent housing programs, that can support women to live lives free from violence and exploitation. 

Mother-specific supports

  • 25% of women wanted to secure permanent housing for themselves and their children. 

Responding to women’s needs requires developing programs that focus on reuniting women with their children. Recommendations include investing in affordable permanent housing that incorporates unique supports for mothers, such as childcare, children’s programming and advocacy with child welfare systems. 

Supportive and safe communities of housing

  • 75% of women described not wanting to live independently in the community.

Our findings show a need to investigate how models of co-housing, shared accommodations and purposefully building intentional communities could support women in resolving their housing crisis.

Next Steps for the [in]visible Project

Sharing our findings widely

As this is the largest research project focusing on the needs of single women completed in Hamilton, our research team is focusing on widely sharing our findings through conferences, publications and other ways. We created a project video using women’s stories and art-work to help convey our findings – please check it out!

Using women’s recommendations to develop housing for women 

Two partners of our community-based research team, Good Shepherd Centres and the YWCA are in the process of developing housing for women, informed by the findings from this project. 

Our research team will be sharing about these developments at the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness Conference in Hamilton in November of 2018!

If you wish to learn more about this project, please contact Mary-Eilzabeth Vaccaro

Mary-Elizabeth is a PhD student at McMaster University in the School of Social Work and a frontline service provider in an emergency shelter serving single women in Hamilton. She is the Principal Investigator of the [in]visible project, funded through Women’s College Hospital conducted in collaboration with the Women’s Housing Planning Collaborative of Hamilton. Mary’s doctoral research explores permanent, supportive, low-barrier housing models for single women who have histories of chronic homelessness. 

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.