Research Matters Blog

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness
January 25, 2018
Categories: Ask the Hub

This post is part of our "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.

Question: Where there are abandoned properties, would it not be a cost-saver to give building owners an incentive to lease the buildings to the city/town ( that the property could be used to house those experiencing homelessness)?

In Canada, there is a great deal of economic disparity. In major cities such as Vancouver and Toronto, there are individuals living in homes that are too big for them; contrastingly, there are people who live in rapidly growing neighbourhoods in overcrowded conditions.

On one extreme end of this issue, there are those who chronically or episodically experience homelessness—at least 235,000 Canadians per year. And the fact that some people are in possession of homes that are vacant (they do not permanently live there nor do they rent it out to tenants) is an issue that has been gaining attention. In fact, some argue that there are enough empty homes to house those individuals who are not sheltered.

Vacant Homes in Toronto and Vancouver: An overview

1. Toronto

The overall vacancy rate for properties in Toronto in 2016 was 1.3%, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). At the same time, there are a number of individuals (particularly young people, large families and newcomers) whose housing places them in a state of core housing need. This means that their housing does not measure up to the adequacy, suitability or affordability standards and/or they spend at least 30% of their income before taxes on housing. Those in core housing need comprised 12.5% of Canadians in 2011.

2. Vancouver

Similarly,the City of Vancouver found that there were 25,445 dwelling units that were unoccupied or occupied by temporary or foreign residents in 2016. Of these properties, 86% were unoccupied (21,820 units) whereas 14% belonged to temporary or foreign residents (3,675 units).

In an effort to give property owners an incentive to rent out their homes, Vancouver implemented an Empty Homes Tax (EHT) where vacant homeowners are charged a 1% tax on the assessed value of their homes.

Why are there so many empty homes?

The City of Vancouver’s report includes some reasons that people provided for their decision not to sell or rent out their homes. 57% said that they used the home occasionally for personal/family use, 22% said rental restrictions, 12% said tenant issues/landlord protection, 5% said other and 4% said they were holding the property for future/personal family use.

Media Folder: 

The fact that many people are living in homes with more bedrooms than they need is another issue that’s been gaining attention. Inadequate city planning and the shelter demand/supply mismatch have been thought to contribute to this issue. For example, individuals in their elderly years who may be looking to downsize cannot find as many affordable, “gentle density” options such as townhomes and duplexes compared to detached homes. The Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis (CANCEA) reported in May 2017 that approximately 45% of households in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) live in detached homes, 35% live in apartments and only 20% live in “gentle density” homes such as semi-detached, row-homes, townhomes, multiplexes and courtyard apartments. Such gentle density options take up less space, and cost less.

It seems that the issue isn’t about a lack of housing in general, but for many, a lack of affordable housing. According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), affordable housing can be viewed as falling along a housing continuum, from “emergency shelters” to “market homeownership housing.” Along this continuum, subsidized housing is included, which is housing that is financially supplemented by the government.

The lack of affordable housing that exists in Canada today has been partially attributed to the cancellation of the 1993 federal social housing program. Even now, in major Canadian cities like Toronto, there is a critical need for social housing repairs and long waitlists for social housing units.

Overall, despite the difficulties Canada faces in regards to its demands for affordable housing,it may be cheaper to house people first, rather than utilizing more expensive emergency services.


There is a growing understanding that the best way to help individuals with housing needs is to provide them with adequate and affordable shelter first. Shelter is the first essential step to help people move forward with their lives.

Housing First

Housing First is an approach that focuses on immediately placing individuals in housing, without any terms or conditions, and then providing the necessary supports for these individuals once they have shelter. Supports provided after shelter is given may include mental health, education, employment, substance abuse and community connections.

Raising the Roof’s Reside Program

Raising the Roof’s “Reside” programis a project that has the goal of turning many of the abandoned century/heritage homes across the GTA into affordable housing for individuals who have struggled to keep permanent shelter over their heads. Itwould also create work for unemployed and marginalized youth, as they would be a part of the renovation process through an organization called Building Up. Building Up is a non-profit organization that provides training in the trades, for people who are in need of employment.

Respite Accommodation and Host Homes

This is an approach to youth homelessness that aims to divert youth from relying on the emergency shelter system. This accomplished by providing youth with temporary housing, supports and interventions that enable them to maintain their social support systems (i.e. friends and family) in their own communities.

In the Halton region of Ontario, there is a Host Home program called Bridging the Gap, with resources in each of the major Halton communities: Burlington, Oakville, Milton, Georgetown and Action.

Youth who wish to access this service must get in touch with a Bridging the Gap worker. As part of the screening process, youth are pre-screened for addictions and mental health crises, where they may be referred to other services if it deemed more appropriate.

Once accepted, youth have access to a private sleeping area, shower access, laundry facilities and meals for up to four months.

Canada’s 10-Year National Housing Strategy

The Canadian government has announced a $40 billion, 10-year plan to deal with the homelessness and affordable housing crises in Canada. $4 billion dollars will go towards the Canada Housing Benefit, providing an average of $2,500 in rent subsidies for families, starting in April 2020.

The strategy aims to:

  • Use a gender-based analysis to provide affordable housing to senior women and women fleeing domestic abuse
  • Repair 300,000 affordable housing units
  • Reduce chronic homelessness by 50%
  • Ensure that 385,000 homes keep their affordable housing
  • Eliminate the housing need for 530,000 households
  • Financial assistance for 300, 000 households through the Canada Housing benefit


To deal with the issue of vacant housing, various programs have been put in place to provide adequate and affordable shelter, such as Housing First. This approach helps to quickly move people out of their situations of homelessness and into secure housing. The main concern and top priority when addressing homelessness should be to place individuals into permanent housing. Their other concerns can then be dealt with after they’ve attained suitable shelter. 

On Nov. 22 and 23, 2017, Juan Haro of East-Harlem-based Movement for Justice in El Barrio came to Montreal to present their resident-led mobilizing strategies and exchange with local organizers on ensuring community-owned, community-led housing rights victories. Movement for Justice in El Barrio is a People of Colour (POC)-led grassroots movement that has successfully prevented the displacement of hundreds of racialized people (largely women and children), living in rent controlled apartments in East Harlem.

As part of this visit, two workshops were organized in collaboration between the Office of Community Engagement at Concordia, the Faculty of Education at McGill, the Center for Community Organizations (COCo) and the Centre for Gender Advocacy.

These two workshops were held at the Imani Community Center in Little Burgundy and at the William-Hingston Centre in Parc-Extension, with the support of the Comité d’action de Parc-Extension (CAPE).

At 9 a.m. on Nov. 22, approximately 30 people were settling in at the Imani Community Center in Little Burgundy. Among them were local residents, community organizers and neighborhood outsiders keen on learning from the effective East-Harlem-based collective, and considering potential extrapolations to a Montreal context that’s seen real-estate lost to private developers in several increasingly contested neighborhoods.

Little Burgundy is one of those places - traditionally home to Montreal’s working-class, English-speaking Black community, many of whom worked in nearby sites dedicated to supporting a bustling trans-Canadian railway industry. As in other bordering neighborhoods that have increasingly been positioned as convenient for urban professionals wishing to live downtown, Little Burgundy’s landscape has gone through significant changes over the last decade and a half. According to the Little Burgundy Coalition, “Little Burgundy is one of the most ethnically diverse communities on the Island of Montreal, with over 83 different ethnicities represented. The socioeconomic profile is also extremely diverse, given that the northeastern part of Little Burgundy is one of the most disadvantaged areas in Montreal, while the southwestern part is fairly affluent.” Indeed, private home ownership has increased dramatically, significantly altering the traditional race-and class-based composition of the neighbourhood; private homes and condominiums stretch along a main southernmost commercial artery now replete with high-price point cachet businesses targeting the incoming owning class; Black community cultural sites have closed down or been repurposed by incoming developers. (Notably, the Imani Community Center is housed in the same building as the St Joseph Church, a traditionally Black community church recently transformed by private developers into Salon 1861, a multi-use social economy incubator.)

In the context of Little Burgundy, the successful grassroots organizing campaigns spearheaded by Movement for Justice are inspiring, especially given Movement’s  unwavering commitment to taking its cues from its membership. Movement for Justice in El Barrio is an immigrant-led, women-led example of sustained resistance to urban displacement. According to Juan Haro, the organization was founded by low-income immigrant women of color, mostly single mothers. Since the organization was founded, they have organized 95 Building Committees throughout our beloved East Harlem neighborhood. Currently, 80% of their members are women and 95% of their membership consists of immigrants. Movement’s commitment to self- determination, participatory democracy, and collective decision-making ensures that women and immigrant folks are the ones that develop the strategies and the overall path they take in their struggle for justice. 

movement logo
Media Folder: 

A sustained track record of pushing back on encroachment through a Zapatista revolution-inspired practice of direct democracy, and has led to undeniable victories including protesting and ultimately successfully preventing the 2008 take-over of 47 apartment buildings by realestate giant Dawnay Day Group.

In Little Burgundy, the 2-hour Movement for Justice workshop led to polarized exchanges, reflecting the cleavages between a widespread institutionalized approach to community housing, funder-dependant and advocacy-reluctant service-provision organizations, and engaged tenants findings themselves experiencing the same sorts of displacements that have occured in New York City, and in other urban centres across Canada -- most notably Toronto and Vancouver.

These are the exact same displacements occurring in the Parc-Extension neighborhood, home to many newcomers to Canada[1] where Movement for Justice showcased its next day workshop to 60 odd concerned individuals. There, Juan Haro stressed the importance of building solidarity among residents experience financial precarity, striking a chord given that Parc Extension is home to many low-income individuals[2], children under 6 from a low-income family[3] and low-income seniors[4]. Many of these residents live in precarious housing. The neighborhood holds high amounts of renter households[5] and high amounts of renter households that dedicate 30% or more of income to housing[6]. Yet, Parc Extension is also experiencing increasing encroachment, partly as a result of a major university initiative slated for development. In 2019, the Université de Montréal will open a $145 million dollar science complex that will contribute to re-shaping the fabric of the neighbourhood, including changes to the cost of housing and potentially displacing large numbers of families who are already struggling to make ends meet.

There was a palpable sense of urgency among participants, particularly in relation to the recent purchase of Hutchison Plaza, a neighborhood building currently used by several locally owned businesses and faith-based centers. The announced Hutchison Plaza evictions were evidently seen by many workshop participants as heralding incoming shifts to the neighborhood. 

Not unlike the previous day’s exchanges in Little Burgundy, the Park-Ex exchange was characterized by a disconnect in organizing approaches between the ground-up perspective advocated by Movement for Justice in El Barrio, the more centralized approach of the CAPE, and the service provision of local non-profits. Many of these would pool together spontaneously at the end of the workshop in order to discuss joint strategies to the recently announced Hutchison Plaza evictions. 

In that respect, Haro stressed the importance of an organization taking its cues from its membership and building, first-and-foremost, site-based resistance. Movement for Justice organizes in apartment building lobbies, and only commits to organizing in a building if a majority of the tenants commit to leading the fight and subsequently show up to meetings.

This commitment to the development of site-based, on-the-ground capacity-building, means that they work without requiring cues from funders or politicians, and in partnership with other organizations across the U.S. 

“We have formed relationships with people of good heart fighting for justice in their respective communities throughout the U.S. and in other corners of the world such as Montreal. We believe it is essential to collaborate with other organizations in the broader social justice movement to fight injustice on multiple levels and to walk together as we strive to create a world where all worlds fit … Over the years, we have collaborated with local service-provision organizations by referring folks to them that may be in need of the services they offer and/or asking them to inform folks they work with about our struggle for justice. We have also partnered with organizations that have pro-bono attorneys and/or can contribute efforts towards policy change,” said Juan Haro.

Movement for Justice offers a deceptively simple and inspiring example that has struck a chord with many outside of the East Harlem context. This has led to Movement for Justice organizers traveling far and wide, offering workshops and giving talks.

To Haro, these connections are a crucial part of their strategy to improve access to safe and affordable housing for all people, by building similar capacity among organizers and residents on an international scale. Closer to home, according to Haro, Movement for Justice Organizers strive “to create spaces to bring together community activists and organizers by hosting gatherings such as  Encuentros for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism and International Women’s Day celebrations. During these gatherings, we listen and learn from one another and contribute to the building of networks of resistance.” Additionally, the movement hosts an annual free 2-day symposium titled, Community and Movement Building for Justice for activists and community organizers seeking to learn from one another and share effective strategies for preventing urban displacement.

Sidestepping an oft-found Canadian tendency to situate housing advocacy in relation to developers and city centers, Movement for Justice ultimately emphasizes the importance of door-to-door work, led by the people directly affected by the issue at hand.

According to Haro, organizers must use decentralized approaches, moving towards strategies that are equal parts social movement facilitation, popular education and community organizing. The emphasis is on effective outreach and the promotion of ongoing collective social analysis among previously disconnected residents.

Together, residents, through participation in newly created affinity networks, work to prevent homelessness and increase stability through collective efforts. Fighting displacement, and resisting unlawful eviction practices, becomes a lived process in a context previously typified through precarity and vulnerability - as a result of joint investment, participants experience the means of forming strong and mutually supporting communities.

[1] 60.5% of Park Extension residents are newcomers vs. city-wide average of 33.2%.

[2] 12,725 Park Extension residents have below-poverty-line incomes or 43.5% (24.6% for Montreal)

[3] 1,335 Park Extension children live below the poverty line, or 51.4% (29.3% for Montreal)

[4] 1,340 seniors are low-income, or 33.2% (21.2% for Montreal)

[5] Renter households: 79.2% (vs 60.7% for Montreal)

[6] 43.5% (vs 40.5% for Montreal)

Toronto Centre for Addiction and Mental Health; University of Toronto Department of Psychiatry
January 18, 2018

It was in lower Manhattan nearly 15 years ago that a young woman experiencing “houselessness,” as she described it, gave me a copy of the piece of art that is below. She used it to tell me about her experience and wanted me to share it with others. It describes her disconnection from the world, her isolation, pain, and tough demeanor (spikes) she needs to project to survive. It shows the thorny connection to her mother, who was addicted to crack, suicidal and sex trade-involved, and who sex trafficked her. It shows a connection to a father who she never knew. She was angry, depressed, and traumatized. She was also going to high school despite being homeless.

Media Folder: 

Nearly half of homeless young people have severe mental health and addiction challenges and almost all are routinely experiencing serious psychological distress. Mental health challenges to varying degrees contribute to pathways onto the streets and difficulties exiting and are caused and compounded by homelessness. The routine exposure to violence, systemic marginalization and discrimination, and resource deprivation make homelessness inherently traumatizing. This is happening to upwards of 40,000 Canadian children and youth every year – with a disproportionate over-representation of Indigenous and LGBTQ2S young people.

The systems that are intended to prevent youth homelessness and help those who are homeless – be it with mental health supports or otherwise, are under-resourced and badly designed. Youth have great difficulty accessing timely and relevant supports – this problem is tragic (suicide and overdose are the two leading causes of death for homeless youth) and expensive with frequent cycling through emergency departments.

Strikingly, to date there has been very little guidance for service providers in the homeless youth sector on how to respond to mental health challenges including addictions. The academic literature is difficult to access and seldom details the approaches studied. Very little is available otherwise. In my 20 years working in this space, I have been asked countless times for suggestions about where guidance can be found on mental health and addictions approaches relevant to homeless youth and community provider contexts.

In response, my close colleagues (Slesnick, Frederick, Karabanow and Gaetz), and I have taken on the task of curating a book written to provide intervention guidance based upon the best available knowledge and evidence in the field. The focus is on mental health and addictions challenges for homeless and street involved youth. We sought out leading practitioners and intervention researchers internationally – asking them to write chapters of clear relevance to direct service providers in the community. It was to be practical and describe approaches that are readily implemented. We had a two stage review – by an internationally recognized academic and by leading practitioners in the field. It tackles topics such as crisis response and specific approaches like DBT skills. It addresses specific populations such as Indigenous, LGBTQ2S, and Black racialized youth. It addresses assessment and evaluation and trauma-informed care frameworks.

There are big strides forward happening in Canada to address the structural barriers and inequities that lead to and perpetuate youth homelessness. While this is happening, however, young people are suffering and dying on Canadian streets – with mental health and addictions challenges closely woven into these preventable losses. This needs to be addressed while we work to end youth homelessness. This book is a part of that effort – responding to the needs of providers working in the field. We will make this book as widely available as possible – both open access and for low cost in print – giving providers more effective tools to address mental health and addiction challenges. We hope that it helps to make a difference – helping young people like the woman that I described above – with more knowledgeable and skillful providers – helping her tap more fully into her already formidable strength and tenacity.

I’ll close with a poem that another youth gave me – a young man with a Benedryl addiction who spent his nights sleeping in unfinished homes at a construction site – scrambling out each day before dawn when the crews arrived.

Media Folder: 

Download Mental Health & Addiction Interventions for Youth Experiencing Homelessness: Practical Strategies for Front-line Providers for free at:

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness
January 16, 2018

We often think of homelessness as something that transcends certain demographic markers, such as age, gender, and sexual orientation. To a certain degree, this is true. Individuals experiencing homelessness are unified by a singular characteristic: the lack of safe, adequate, and affordable housing.

With this being said, it is also important to recognize that the right to housing should include having choice in the type of housing one life in. Generalized, “one size fits all” solutions will not necessarily work for everyone who experiences homelessness. For example, we know that the response to youth homelessness is different than adult homelessness and that the experience of homelessness is different among Indigenous Peoples compared to non-Indigenous individuals. We also know that LGBTQ2S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, Two-Spirit) youth have a different experience of homelessness than non-LGBTQ2S youth, particularly as it relates to service use experiences.

Therefore, housing interventions that address the multiple layers of a person’s identity, is one way to recognize the diversity of individuals who experience homelessness.

LGBTQ2S Adult Housing Needs Assessment

With this knowledge in hand, I’d like to share the results of a needs assessment that I conducted with Daybreak Non-Profit Housing, through the support of the Ontario Trillium Foundation. The project, based in Ottawa, Ontario, examined the housing needs of LGBTQ2S adults who have experienced homelessness. There is a paucity of research on LGBTQ2S adults who experience homelessness, so this project filled a much needed gap.

What did we do?

We conducted interviews with 22 LGBTQ2S adults who had experienced at least one episode of homelessness, and focus groups and surveys with local service providers. The participants of the focus groups and surveys were staff members from agencies representing various types of service models (e.g., emergency shelters, drop-in services, congregate supportive housing agencies, scattered-site supported housing agencies, and community health centres).

What did we find?

Key findings from the interviews with LGBTQ2S adults include:

  • Half of the participants had an experience of homelessness prior to the age of 21.
  • More than half of participants discussed the impact of their LGBTQ2S identity on their entry into homelessness, particularly in regards to landlord discrimination, harassment from other tenants, and struggles with their gender identity and/or sexual orientation.
  • The participants generally felt supported by staff members of agencies across the homeless serving sector, but some participants did recount interactions with staff that were homophobic, biphobic, and/or transphobic. Further, not all participants felt comfortable disclosing their gender identity and/or sexual orientation with staff.
  • Many of the participants did not feel safe disclosing their gender identity and/or sexual orientation with other clients. This discomfort arose from the potential of verbal and physical harassment from the other clients. Housing experiences followed a similar pattern, as some participants felt safe in their housing and other participants experienced verbal harassment from other tenants.
  • The housing needs of clients were diverse. Over half of the participants stated that they would access housing specific to the LGBTQ2S community. There was no consensus on the type of housing that participants wanted, although a majority of the participants stated that they preferred to live independently.
  • Some participants expressed that housing options specific to certain identities and orientations within the LGBTQ2S spectrum are warranted, including housing specific to transgender individuals.
  • Neighbourhoods were important, as some participants expressed wanting to live in a LGBTQ2S-friendly neighbourhood and others wanting to live outside of the downtown core.
  • Regardless of the type of housing that is potentially developed, participants thought it was important to include supports for those who needed it and to staff the housing with individuals who identify as part of the LGBTQ2S community.

Where do we go from here?

Based upon the results, we developed a series of recommendations for service providers, service agencies, and municipalities to assist in the creation of an inclusive sector. These recommendations focused on:

1 - the development of housing options specific to the LGBTQ2S community;

2- the inclusion of LGBTQ2S-identified staff members in these housing options;

3 - improving staff training on the LGBTQ2S community across the sector; and

4 - entrenching the rights of transgender, gender non-conforming, and Two-Spirit individuals.

By recognizing the importance of an individual’s gender identity and/or sexual orientation, this study has demonstrated that the response to homelessness should be one that recognizes diversity, inclusivity, and above all, choice in housing.

The report can be found here:   

The link to the report is here:



A Way Home
January 11, 2018

Happy New Year! A Way Home Canada opened 2018 with an even stronger commitment to fighting for the human rights of youth experiencing homelessness. Building on the success of the first International Summit on the Legal Needs of Street Youth held in London in June 2015, the American Bar Association, in late November 2017, convened an even greater number of jurisdictions and advocates for street-connected children and youth from around the world to examine the mandate provided by the United Nations General Comment 21 on Children in Street Situations. Bringing together street youth experts across the globe, this was the second-ever convening focused on the legal rights of street youth as a path to ensuring dignity and human rights for a population often forgotten or ignored. The Summit Agenda reviewed the legal guarantees in the General Comment point-by point through panel and live, interactive discussion by leaders from around the world examining best practices and challenges in the face of the UN's General Comment and its renewed expectations of every signatory nation across the world -- including Canada. Canadian delegates in attendance were Melanie Redman, A Way Home Canada; Stephen Gaetz, Canadian Observatory on Homelessness; Bruce Rivers, Covenant House Toronto; and Julia Huys, Justice for Children and Youth.

A unique outcome of the summit was a vibrant exchange of information and best ideas across borders about how nations can implement the rights embedded in the UN's new international instrument. Second, and equally unique, the Summit is using the input to produce a first-ever publication of principles from the world’s experts on street-connected children and youth that will foster the implementation of each of the legal issues in the UN's General Comment. This publication will be delivered to world leaders in Spring 2018. As Canadians, we have an opportunity to leverage the results of the Summit in our advocacy work on behalf of youth experiencing homelessness. 

Another important development with support from Baker & McKenzie in partnership with the Consortium for Street Children is an online resource called the “Legal Atlas for Street Children.” This website will highlight the areas where governments can do more to ensure street children can not only meet their basic needs to survive, but can develop to their fullest potential. We have an opportunity to support the development of this resource to include Canada. This will be yet another tool in our collective toolbox to not only hold all orders of government to account for our international human rights obligations, but also help government know exactly where improvements can be made and compare those efforts to other countries. 

Over the coming months, A Way Home Canada, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, Covenant House Toronto and Justice for Children and Youth will work to educate stakeholders across the country about UN General Comment 21 and Canadian opportunities and implications therein. We’ll host a webinar in collaboration with the American Bar Association to kick-off these efforts and provide opportunities for Canadian stakeholders to “sign on” to the recommendations for country-level implementation. Stay tuned for more updates and announcements in the coming weeks. 

I hope you’ll take the time to watch the video above where young people with lived experience share their reflections on the importance of the Summit and all of our collective work on the human rights of children and youth. Let’s make “Youth Rights, Right Now” our rallying cry for 2018!



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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.