Understanding Hidden Homelessness

York University; Canadian Observatory on Homelessness
August 01, 2018

Individuals who experience homelessness are diverse, not only in characteristics such as age, gender, sexual orientation and/or race, but also in terms of their living arrangements. Homelessness is commonly perceived as an individual sleeping on the street or in emergency shelters - locations that are highly visible. However, homelessness is experienced in multiple ways, and is often a fluid experience ranging from places of accommodations, to duration, as well as frequency. 

The Canadian Observatory on Homelessness defines hidden homelessness as individuals who are provisionally accommodated. That is, those whose accommodation is temporary or lacks security of tenure. 

Known as the “out of sight, out of mind”, populations experiencing hidden homelessness often find themselves couch surfing, staying with friends or family, sleeping in cars, abandoned buildings, or under bridges. Experiencing hidden homelessness entails a living situation that is both physically and emotionally precarious. For instance, one study interviewing youth experiencing hidden homelessness understood their living accommodations with friends or family as temporary and felt a loss of control and feelings of imposition. 

Like all those who experience homelessness, pathways into hidden homelessness come about due to a combination of structural factors, system failures, as well as personal circumstances. These factors commonly include unaffordable housing, victimization, chronic illness, disability, a loss of employment, discrimination, family breakdown, and unlivable wages. In turn, several of these factors further contribute to the inability to get permanent housing while also making one even more vulnerable to an increased risk of victimization, sexual exploitation, and a loss of identity. 

Who Experiences Hidden Homelessness?

Although there is limited data both nationally and regionally, a 2016 report by Statistics Canada provides us with a unique national-level data set on hidden homelessness. Not without its limitations, this study draws upon past experiences of hidden homelessness and only includes housed Canadians with access to a phone – thus excluding a significant portion of current hidden homeless population. The report finds that factors most strongly correlated with experiencing hidden homelessness include having been victimized sexually and physically as a child, having two or more disabilities, and having moved three or more times in the past five years. Moreover, Indigenous Peoples were overrepresented in these numbers due to Canada’s legacy of colonization. Other findings include:

  • Nearly 1 in 10 Canadians have experienced hidden homelessness
  • In 2014, 8% of Canadians aged 15 and over report experiencing hidden homelessness at some point in their lives because they had nowhere else to live
  • Of the duration of hidden homelessness, 18% experienced it for at least 1 year, 55% ranged between 1 month and 1 year, and 27% for less than 1 month 
  • 18% of Indigenous populations report experiencing hidden homelessness compared to their non-Indigenous counterparts at 8% 
  • 15% of LGBTQ2S individuals report having experienced hidden homelessness
  • 18% of individuals who identify as bisexual experienced hidden homelessness when compared to 8% of their heterosexual counterparts
  • Those who were criminally victimized within the past year were nearly 2x as likely to experience hidden homelessness than those who were not
  • Canadians who used medication such as antidepressants were more than 2x as likely to have experienced hidden homelessness than those who did not 
  • Canadians who reported a marital status as separated or divorced were more than 2x as likely to experience hidden homelessness than their married or never-married counterparts
  • The strength of one's support network and community impacted the likelihood of experiencing hidden homelessness, demonstrating that those with strong community ties were least likely to experience hidden homelessness (7%), and those with weak ties were 2x as likely (14%) to report an episode of hidden homelessness 
  • Out of victims of both physical and sexual abuse before age 15, 1 in 4 were likely to have experienced an episode of hidden homelessness, when compared to children who had been abused sexually (12%) or physically (11%)
  • Children involved with child welfare services were three times as likely to have experienced hidden homelessness than those not involved with child welfare

How can we enumerate hidden homelessness?

As hidden homelessness is non-visible in nature, opportunities to survey and/or enumerate this population are limited. For instance, PiT Counts are the most effective tool in taking a ‘snapshot’ of the number of people experiencing homelessness on a specific day. However, they cannot accurately enumerate the full extent of hidden homelessness in a community. Typically, this results in an underestimation of how many people in Canada experience homelessness. Promisingly, as part of the 2016 HPS Coordinated Point-in-Time Count, communities were encouraged to conduct surveys with people experiencing hidden homelessness.

Media Folder: 
The methodology outlined in the HPS guide provides several strategies to include populations experiencing hidden homelessness in a community’s enumeration. Although the count provides an opportunity to collect useful survey data from people who are couch-surfing, it likely only captures a fraction of the total hidden homeless population.

On a macro-level, data collected from those who are visibly homeless makes up 20% of the homeless population - where an estimated 80% are hidden homeless. Likewise, State of Homelessness in Canada 2016 found that on any given night 35,000 individuals, minimally, are homeless. When factoring in hidden 

homelessness, this figure skyrockets. On a micro-level, our understanding of those who experience hidden homelessness, their unique lived experiences, and day-to-day lives is also limited. The data that we do have suggests that this population often does not use traditional homelessness services. Some factors include: an unease with the shelter environment, feelings of pride, as well as a desire to conceal themselves from society due to the social exclusion they are subjected to. Among this group, women and youth are more likely to experience hidden homelessness as they are less likely to seek out shelter services

With this said, due to the limitations in surveying this population, it is safe to say that the needs of the hidden homeless are misunderstood, underestimated, and underserved. 

Moving Forward

Of the data presented, what can be understood is that the pathways into hidden homelessness are similar to what broader research on homelessness finds. That is, an overrepresentation of Indigenous and LGBTQ2S populations experiencing homelessness, as well as a history of sexual and physical victimization in childhood. Promisingly, as we learn more about hidden homelessness, we can tailor systems planning and policy development to reflect the needs of this population. With the rate at which Canadians experience hidden homelessness, we must move towards more innovative solutions to homelessness that work towards a preventative framework. To echo the report’s concluding remarks, additional research is required to further understand the trajectory of those who experience hidden homelessness, and mobilize solutions that incorporate the needs of this population from the bottom up.  

Nadia Ali holds a BA (Hons) in Criminology from York University. She has an interest in the criminalization of homelessness and poverty, affordable housing, access to mental health care and the intersection of homelessness with race, class, gender and/or sexual orientation.

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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.