Research Matters Blog

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness
August 14, 2013

Here at the Homeless Hub we love infographics. They are such a great way of conveying information. We’re going to share our favourites – created by us or others – every week, along with some research links to provide context.

This week’s infographic comes from the American Institutes for Research and is based on the “Service and Housing Interventions for Families in Transition (SHIFT) Longitudinal Study”.

Homeless Mother history of trauma
Media Folder: 

This study “examines the effectiveness of different housing and service models in helping families who are experiencing homelessness establish and maintain residential stability and self-sufficiency.” While it has a focus in New York State the information can be transferred to the rest of the United States and similar data exists for Canada.

I found this comment in the report extremely striking, “Not since the Great Depression have significant numbers of families and children been homeless. During the 1980’s, families were a small segment of the homeless population, but in the last few decades their numbers have steadily climbed and now comprise approximately 38% of the overall homeless population.”

This meshes with a 2011 fact sheet from the YWCA’s Rose Campaign which says, “Violence against women is the leading cause of women’s homelessness in Canada. Every year, violence and abuse drive over 100,000 women and children out of their homes and into emergency shelters.”

What I think often gets missed is the connection to kids. If the leading cause of women’s homelessness is violence then the leading cause of children’s homelessness is also violence. Certainly there are linkages with other factors, such as poverty, but violence is key.

For street youth violence continues to play a role. A 2010 joint report from the Homeless Hub and Justice for Children and Youth “Surviving Crime and Violence Street Youth and Victimization in Toronto” found: 85.9% of female street youth reported being victims of crime compared to 71.8% of young males.

  • This was true across all categories of crime including property crime and violent crime.
  • 38.2% of female street youth reported being victims of sexual assault.
  • Amongst female street youth, black females were much more likely to report being victims of sexual assault (47%) than were white females (33%).
  • 60% of queer female youth report being victims of sexual assault during the past year.

The report also found that intimate partner violence (IPV) was also a serious issue for female street youth. “Over 55% report at least one incident of IPV (and of those, 79.5% reported more than one incident). Fifty-three percent reported emotional abuse, and 35% reported physical violence.”

Women’s Habitat of Etobicoke, a Violence Against Women shelter, has a very powerful PSA that speaks to the issues of violence and homelessness for women:

We are hiring! If you are an undergrad student at York University with an interest in homeless issues, we may have a position for you. Through the Research At York (RAY) program we’ll be hiring three undergrads to help us with our work. Duties will vary but could include creating films, making infographics, writing blogs, monitoring social media and of course, research on homelessness. Deadline to apply is August 23rd. See our job posting for more details.

Our Ask the Hub blog last week got a lot of traction. In large part, it was due to the great infographic designed by our incoming Graduate Assistant, Isaac “The Iceman” Coplan. This new Friday feature lets you ask us the questions. We’ll answer with research-based information, or find someone who is an expert on that topic to respond. Last week’s question was:

Many times when I come across a person who appears to be homeless, he/she also seems to be mentally ill. In your experience, have you discovered that most homeless people are also dealing with a mental illness of some sort? If so, is one kind of mental illness more prominent than others? Read our answer.

Homelessness and mental Health in Canada
Media Folder: 

The West Coalition on Housing and Homelessness in Toronto has shared a valuable study conducted by researchers at U of T and their partners about the risks for homelessness. Here at the Hub we believe that prevention is key to solving homelessness and our State of Homelessness in Canada: 2013 report showed that a great many Canadians are at risk. The research – part of the Family Homelessness in the Inner Suburbs – finds that only 1 in 10 families in Toronto’s inner suburbs are adequately housed. Researchers used a Homelessness Risk Index to make their assessments focusing on 6 key data points:

  • Unaffordable housing,
  • Overcrowded housing,
  • Unsafe housing,
  • Insecure housing,
  • Bad unit conditions, and
  • Bad building conditions. 

Social Planning Toronto produced a great summary of a recent community meeting. It states, “Initial results show that about half of the families surveyed are facing one to two major housing problems, while 1 in 3 families are facing severe or critical housing problems and risk of homelessness.

Speaking of risk, a blog post from the National Alliance to End Homelessness shared a youth homelessness vulnerability index proposal that was presented at the 2013 National Conference on Ending Homelessness. Factors that put youth at risk include:

  • Violence at home amongst family members,
  • Differences in religious beliefs with parents/guardians/caregivers,
  • Left group or foster home,
  • First marijuana use under the age of 12,
  • Spent time in jail or juvenile detention before the age of 18, and 
  • Been pregnant or gotten someone else pregnant. 

Developed by Eric Rice from the University of Southern California, in conjunction with CSH’s Stable Homes, Brighter Futures project, the research finds that only 10% of homeless youth meet 4 or more of the criteria.


John Howards Society of Toronto
August 10, 2013

For 37 years, Prisoners' Justice Day in Canada has stood for, and been hailed as, a somber reminder of the unnecessary deaths of Edward Nalon on August 10th 1974 and Robert Landers in May of 1976. Both men died while being detained in Millhaven Prison’s Maximum Security segregation unit. Initially, the recognition of August 10th as Prisoners' Justice Day was started by a group of inmates being held at the same prison on the first anniversary of Nalon's death. However, it has since expanded into the community and prisons across the nation and it is utilized to highlight the conditions that inmates face on a daily basis, as well as a day to remember all those men and women who have died behind prison walls. Prisoners' Justice Day events have been used to educate the public and to advocate for changes regarding the treatment of those in custody and the need for prison reform.

The John Howard Society of Toronto and many of its affiliates across the nation recognize with fervor the need to have prisoner’s fundamental rights acknowledged and upheld. John Howard himself (2 September 1726 - 20 January 1790) was a prison reformer and an English political figure who fought tirelessly to overhaul the prison system having not only observed but also experienced some of the atrocities that took place within so many of the goals throughout the country and abroad.

To this day, the affiliates of the John Howard Societies across Canada seek to develop understanding of and effective responses to the problems of crime and its causes. John Howard Society organizations offer programs and services that are geared towards reducing recidivism rates and increasing community safety through the provision of addiction counselling, anger management, pre-release prison support and assistance to find and maintain housing. Many affiliates also advocate for safe, affordable housing, solutions to poverty and ways to enhance the quality of life for those affected by the criminal justice system.

In 2010, The John Howard Society of Toronto undertook and compiled a research study that focused on the housing trajectories of inmates in Toronto's three remand centres. The data obtained was used to inform the results of the study entitled “Homeless and Jailed: Jailed and Homeless” which looked at the correlation between incarceration and homelessness. In addition to examining some of the issues facing men in custody who identified as being homeless at the time of their release, the study also captured information about their immediate and anticipated service needs in the months after release. Other research conducted by the John Howard Society of Toronto found that incarceration was a catalyst for homelessness in the GTA and that anywhere from ⅓ to more than ½ of inmates leaving custody would have no fixed address upon the completion of their short term sentences.

In 2013, we know still, that there stands a need for reform and the need for fundamental rights, such as accommodations upon release, to be recognized fully. We understand how through appropriate and meaningful community supports, those involved in the criminal justice system can reintegrate into society with positive results inevitably improving their quality of life. This is not simply a dream but a reality that can be achieved with the support of communities, agencies and regulating bodies who understand that a sense of security and hope, can greatly improve the life of those who at one time, lacked hope. We strive to achieve this through the work we do for those who have little ability to assist themselves in what must seem like, an unforgiving world and we acknowledge and thank those who share this vision.

For more information please visit our Topic - Legal & Justice Issues: Criminalization of Homelessness.

Ainsley Cripps has been an employee of the John Howard Society of Toronto for the past seven years and has worked in the capacity of Resettlement Court Worker and Native Inmate Liaison Officer. She currently works in all three of Toronto's Remand Centres overseeing the Native Program for First Nations, Metis and Inuit individuals looking for traditional healing and discharge planning. Ainsley is of Mohawk descent and is very ingrained within Toronto's Native community, assisting with Discharge Planning and community referrals to help inmates reintegrate into the community, successfully.

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness
August 09, 2013
Categories: Ask the Hub

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.

Dear Homeless Hub

Many times when I come across a person who appears to be homeless, he/she also seems to be mentally ill. In your experience, have you discovered that most homeless people are also dealing with a mental illness of some sort? If so, is one kind of mental illness more prominent than others?

Kerry Barbieri
Niagara Falls, Ontario

Dear Kerry,

Mental illness is often misunderstood in our society, and this is particularly true as it pertains to people who are homeless or street-involved. It can sometimes be challenging to determine how many homeless people have mental health issues and what types or substance use issues because of the lack of research and data. It is also a challenge to determine whether the mental health issue or substance use caused the person to enter homelessness, or whether these issues arose from their experience of being homeless.

In 2007, the Canadian Institute for Health Information published “Mental Health and Homelessness” report that outlined a number of studies on mental health. There was some general information, but they mainly focused on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia, substance use and depression. Studies have found that as many as 29% of shelter users have met criteria for one of several mental illnesses including: anti-social personality disorder (along with depression), PTSD or psychotic disorder.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: The same report drew attention to research of homeless youth that found 24% of youth met the criteria for PTSD. Additionally, 40% of youth who met the criteria for Substance Use Disorder also met the criteria for PTSD.

Schizophrenia: There are also overlaps with schizophrenia. One study in Toronto of 300 shelter users found 6% had a psychotic disorder (including schizophrenia). Another study with 124 shelter users in Vancouver found that 7 out of 124 shelter users (nearly 6%) had schizophrenia. This is a significant increase when compared to the general population diagnosis rate of 1%. Substance Use - Throughout Canada, the well-being survey found that 1 to 4% of Canadians have suffered from issues with substance dependence. Several studies have looked at substance dependence and homelessness. A study in Toronto found 68% of shelter users reported a diagnosis of dependence sometime in their life. A study in Vancouver found 44% of homeless adults used non-prescription drugs in the past month. A study in Edmonton found 55% of youth had reported using at least one of the following four drugs in the past year: cocaine, heroin, amphetamines or tranquilizers.

Depression: Throughout Canada, 14-17% of women and 7-10% of men have been diagnosed with depression. In a study conducted in Ottawa, 39% of male youth experiencing homelessness reported symptoms of depression, compared with 20% of male youth who are housed. A separate study, also conducted in Ottawa, found 33% of adult males experiencing homelessness reported having difficulties with mental health; 20% had depression.

Homelessness and mental Health in Canada

The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) estimates that between 25 to 50% of homeless people in Canada have mental illness. Out of those with severe mental illness, up to 70% also have difficulty with substance abuse.

MHCC also found that 520,700 people with mental illness are inadequately housed and up to 119,800 people with mental illness are experiencing homeless. Despite these high numbers, there are only 25,000 supportive housing units currently available across Canada.

The interim report (Sept 2012) from the At Home/Chez Soi project administered by MHCC states: “Over 900 individuals from our shelters and on our streets who have not been well served by our current approach are now housed in adequate, affordable and suitable settings. Eighty six percent of participants remain in their first or second unit (as of August 2012). At 12 months those in the Housing First intervention had spent an average of 73% of their time in stable housing. In contrast, those in treatment as usual (TAU) spend only 30% of their time in stable housing. This creates the possibility of better long term health and social functioning outcomes for individuals who have histories of trauma and poor health. Once housed many are beginning to take advantage of the safer places and the opportunities that are created to make better life choices – including pursing opportunities to engage in part or full-time employment.”

As you can see Kerry, it’s hard to get an exact fix on the numbers. What the research does tell us is that there is a strong link between homelessness or insecure housing and mental health issues. Certainly, research has proven that a Housing First approach to solving homelessness – no matter what an individual’s issues are – allows a person to stay housed and to address their other issues over time.

Tanya Gulliver & Isaac Coplan
Homeless Hub

For more information on the relationship between homelessness and mental health visit our Topic - Mental Health.

Housing stability. Rapid re-housing. Prevention. Diversion.

These were the words that guided discussion at the first of four service provider consultations hosted by the City of Toronto’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration Division last week. The consultations are a welcome opportunity to inform the City’s Five-Year Housing Stability Plan and the public’s annual $650 Million investment in housing and homelessness.

For some, these terms are full of meaning. But I can’t help wondering whether our discussion somehow missed the mark. What if the foundation for the City’s housing strategy was a single, simple goal:

Everyone has a home.

Starting with a single syllable

We’re not used to basing city policy on single-syllable words, and certainly not words that are as personal and emotion-laden as “home.” How could such a word guide funding decisions, or inform program evaluations?

For fun, I spent a happy summer afternoon looking for answers outside the housing sector, skimming definitions of “home” in everything from women’s magazines to children’s essays to poems. I discovered four themes that seemed surprisingly pertinent to the consultations:

Home is where you can settle in. According to the poets, children and magazine readers, it’s not about how long you stay in one place or another. It’s about whether a place is yours to keep as long as you want. It’s home when you can live and plan your future, secure in the knowledge that you will not be arbitrarily evicted or forced out because you can no longer afford to live there.

Home is where your people are. Sometimes “your people” are your own family or friends. Sometimes they are simply the people you feel comfortable around, because you share a common culture or language, belong to the same social strata, or share similar life experiences.

Home is where you are safe. It is a refuge and a sanctuary. It’s where you can protect yourself from not just the violent or the thieving – although that is essential — but also from the tiresome, the mean-spirited or the nosy.

Home is where you can be yourself. In the magazines, “being yourself” seems to mean lounging in old T-shirts and flip-flops, staying up late and never mind the dishes. It gets trickier when “being yourself” involves bugging your neighbours, turning your apartment into a fire hazard, or drinking yourself to death. But I think there is an important principle here: home is not so much the place where you “get your act together” as the place where you don’t have to act at all.

From happy sentiments to housing strategy

What might a housing plan supported by the pillars of settling, belonging, safety and being yourself look like?

For a lark, I tried scoring each of the most common housing alternatives against these four pillars. I discovered, of course, that almost every answer was, “it depends.” I could think of non-profits and co-ops that foster a deep sense of belonging, and others where intrusive rules make it impossible to be yourself; shelters that were safe, and those that definitely were not.

Nonetheless, the exercise helped me look at housing options from a different perspective. I started asking questions such as:

Are general emergency shelters actually better than the street? Both offer opportunities for belonging; neither allow people to settle in; neither are safe. But the street has one big advantage over shelters: you can be yourself in a way not possible in a (necessarily) rule-bound shelter.

Could shelters improve their advantage over the street by investing heavily in safety, or by reducing rules to the absolute minimum? Or should the City be shifting its funding to smaller specialty shelters, such as women’s or youth shelters, where the potential for belonging and safety are higher?

Is transitional housing really part of the housing system? It was transitional housing’s focus on self- improvement that stood out on my score card. It made me wonder whether it should be recognized as part of the health or education system – a sort of school residence while you learn skills or recover from an addiction – and be funded and regulated accordingly?

Can we replicate the advantages of social housing in private buildings? Permanent non-profit and co-op housing scored well on all four pillars, but we also know in this market it is costly to build.

Subsidies in private buildings could offer similar advantages, but only if we dropped our notion that housing allowances are time-limited aids. The threat of losing one’s subsidy is the antithesis of settling – especially at a time when incomes are declining, not rising, across Ontario. We’d also need to stop parachuting tenants into buildings that are out of their comfort zone – away from their social circle and the services that keep that circle alive.

Evaluation? Ask the people who live there

And how would the City evaluate whether an organization is providing a home, or a path to a home? It could start by asking the people the organization serves.

Tenant and client surveys tend to be under-used. I can understand why. Many tenants and clients have trouble completing questionnaires, individual interviews are time-consuming, and the results can be hard to quantify. But I know no truer measure of a policy outcome than the testimony of the people it is designed to serve.

Simplicity and science

Am I proposing that city policy be driven by popular culture rather than solid research?

Certainly not! But I can’t help noticing the poets, children and magazine readers have hit on many of the findings confirmed by research and reflected in the City’s own philosophy: the proven benefits of self-determination, choice, autonomy, stability, security, and community.

This may be one time when simplicity is not “dumbing down.” Instead, it may be the best way to get at the heart of our work.

Reposted with permission from Opening the Window.

Joy Connelly writes Opening the Window, a blog featuring fresh ideas for social housing. She has worked in housing for over 30 years.


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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.