PART ONE: Pre-Amble
Part One of this article was written by Stephen Gaetz, President & CEO, Canadian Observatory on Homelessnes; Melanie Redman, President & CEO, A Way Home Canada; Alina Turner, Principal, Turner Strategies.
PART TWO: Michael's Story
Sometimes words are not enough. And when we’re trying to convey our experiences of homelessness, a picture – as they say – is worth a thousand words.
For me, art has been refuge from a young age. It was my calm even in the darkest of times- of which I have had many.
When asked whether I would contribute to the conversation on homelessness by adding my voice to a national chorus of peers calling for authentic Reconciliation, I find my voice comes through better through a paintbrush than a pen.
About the Paintings
I painted these two standalone pieces, which fit together into a larger whole, to represent one the one hand “homel-essness” and on the other, “home-fullness.” Hence, the title of the work is Transformations.
You will see in the first painting that the colours are dark, muted, lost. The person on the street is holding a sign calling for change, not cash. The ravens are observing inactivity and lifelessness; they are still. In the second image, vibrant colours from the sun spill over to evoke light, life, and hope. The drummer belongs, and is free. The lights are on in the home and the raven is in flight.
If you’re ever at the Calgary Homeless Foundation’s office, the originals can be found at the main reception as a gift from me to the community of Calgary, where I started my recovery journey and still reside today.
In many ways, my story is one you’ve likely encountered at many shelter or street corner. I was born in 1966 in Edmonton, Alberta and am a Chipewyan Dene, Treaty 8, and a member of the Lutselk’e Dene First Nations band. Lutselk’e, a fly-in community near Yellowknife, NWT, located on upper east arm of the Great Slave Lake. I still have strong connections with the community of Yellowknife, where I lived for many years. The North is an embedded influence on my artistic style to this day.
My path hasn't been an easy one; I am part of the 60s Scoop, and was moved from foster house to foster house throughout my childhood. I experienced first-hand the systemic marginalization Indigenous Peoples continue to struggle against: incarceration, child welfare, street homelessness, addiction though my travails through Edmonton, Regina, Winnipeg, Lutselk’e, Calgary, and Yellowknife.
From the start, I had a tumultuous upbringing. Negative influences and difficult circumstances left me feeling lost and alone. I was filled with a sense of having no identity, culture or heritage. No friends or family. No direction or hope.
Yet, my story and my art are about healing, resilience, cultural revitalization and the promise of Indigenous-led Reconciliation.
Despite the many physical, mental and emotional challenges I faced, I continue to find solace in art and a way of bringing imagination to life. My paintings capture the Indigenous spiritual aspects and beauty of the land, sky and people of the North. It’s these aspects of home that I want to share with the world.
If you’d like to know more about me and my art, please visit www.michaelfatt.com
A common misconception about people experiencing homelessness is their weight, or lack thereof. While many people experiencing homelessness are on the lower end of the body mass index (BMI) scale (a measure of body fat based on height and weight), a considerable amount of them are overweight or obese. This means many of them have a BMI score between 25-29.9 (overweight) or a score of 30 or higher (obese).
In Carla D'Andreamatteo and Joyce Slater’s study, more than half of their 40 participants—men experiencing homelessness in Canada—were overweight or obese. A study on youth homelessness based in the U.S. showed that over half of its female participants were obese and 41% of its male participants were either overweight or obese. Among a study’s sample of 5632 adults in the U.S, 32.3% were obese, while only 1.6% were underweight.
Despite their size, overweight and obese people experiencing homelessness are still at risk for malnutrition, just like their normal-weight and underweight counterparts. Overweight or not, numerous studies have shown nutrition deficiency among those experiencing homelessness. One study found over 90% of its male participants were deficient in vitamin A and D3, along with calcium and magnesium. On the other hand, 100% of females were deficient in vitamin A, D3 and C, with over 90% of them lacking vitamin E and calcium. A study on youth homelessness based in Toronto found over half of its participants lacked folate, vitamin A and C, zinc and magnesium, and over half of the women surveyed lacked iron and vitamin B-12. Other studies have also shown deficiencies in certain vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre, but overconsumption of sodium, sugar and saturated fat.
Constrained by Living Conditions and Income
Nutrition deficiency and obesity among those experiencing homelessness exist because of the nutritiously poor, yet calorie-dense food they often eat, whether it’s food they’ve purchased or food from charitable services. Fresh fruits and vegetables are often expensive, so they turn to cheaper processed alternatives. One of the youth in the Toronto study relied heavily on Kraft Dinner, a brand of packaged macaroni and cheese dinner, because of its low price. Lack of access to an oven, stove and refrigerator also forces people experiencing homelessness to purchase unhealthy take-out or ready-made, packaged foods found in convenience stores. When making food choices, nutrition is rarely a priority for people experiencing homelessness. They eat just to survive and to satisfy a basic human need. Although many would like to eat healthier, their living conditions and little to no income limit their options and make it extremely difficult.
Soup Kitchens’ Reliance on Food Donations
Many of those experiencing homelessness or poverty rely on meals offered by charitable services, but these meals are also constrained by cost and are not healthier. A study on three American soup kitchens revealed that although eating two meals provided two thirds of the required daily amount of most nutrients, they lacked fibre and were extremely high in calories, saturated fat and sodium. D'Andreamatteo and Slater’s study showed how the participants’ reliance on charitable meal programs in Canada led to low consumption of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and milk and alternatives, but high consumption of sugary, salty, and fatty foods.
Also, an analysis charitable meal programs in Victoria, Edmonton, Toronto, Quebec City, and Halifax revealed that many of them had limited government funding for food and were highly dependent on food donations, fundraising, and volunteer labour. Most of the programs provided meals made from both purchased and donated foods, but usually more than half of their supply came from donations. These donations included unsellable “leftover” foods from local businesses, and because of the foods’ nearing expiration, errors during manufacturing, or damage from shipping and handling, programs sometimes received foods that weren’t edible. Although a majority of programs wanted or tried to follow nutrition recommendations, their small budget and reliance on donations determined the quantity and quality of their meals, which were highly variable.
The obese and overweight population makes the issue of hunger and food deprivation among people experiencing homelessness no less severe. Accessing any food, nutritious or not, is an immense struggle many face. Some have to go to great lengths, such as survival sex, to satisfy their hunger. The analysis of charitable meal programs in Victoria, Edmonton, Toronto, Quebec City, and Halifax also found the number of meals the programs provided wasn’t enough to meet the demand. A quarter of them sometimes had to turn people away or shorten serving times when they ran out of food, and some cut portions in order to feed more people.
Service times is another barrier people face when accessing meals. Some programs are only open once or twice a week and during certain times of the year; less than half of the programs surveyed in the Canadian cities study served meals five or more times a week and only 35% of them served meals on weekends. Moreover, only 64% were open all year round. The study based on youth homelessness in Toronto showed the unreliability and unpredictability of serving schedules, with certain programs closing on some days, even entire weeks, without warning. Because of the scant and unreliable serving times of charitable meal programs, people who rely on them are prone to hunger, or even worse, chronic food deprivation. In the Toronto youth study, 43% of females and 28% of males reduced their food intake for 10 or more days in one month, sometimes not eating for entire days. In the same study, some males showed muscle atrophy—also known as muscle wasting—a sign of severe food deprivation.
Multiple Health Risks
Nutrition deficiency, hunger, and growing BMI scores coupled with the stress and hardships of homelessness, put those experiencing it at greater risk for physical and mental illnesses, and worsen existing ones like depression, substance abuse, and various sexually transmitted diseases. Nutrition deficiency can damage health in the long run, such as bone fractures later in life due to calcium deficiency. Obesity comes with its own problems: Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension. Dietary fibre, which was low for many participants in the studies discussed, is linked to decreased chances of developing obesity, Type 2 diabetes and gastrointestinal disorders.
The charitable meal programs’ poor funding and dependence on donated, sometimes inedible, foods highlights something very problematic in our society: the “beggars can’t be choosers” belief, that people experiencing poverty and homelessness may be fed with “leftover” foods—even if these foods are nutritionally inadequate. After all, anything is better than nothing. However, as these studies have shown, not only are these foods harming their health, but there’s not enough of these foods to meet the high demand. There needs to be better strategies and policies to address the diets and nutrition of those experiencing homelessness.
This post is part of our "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at email@example.com 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 (...so 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
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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 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, children under 6 from a low-income family and low-income seniors. Many of these residents live in precarious housing. The neighborhood holds high amounts of renter households and high amounts of renter households that dedicate 30% or more of income to housing. 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.
 60.5% of Park Extension residents are newcomers vs. city-wide average of 33.2%.
 12,725 Park Extension residents have below-poverty-line incomes or 43.5% (24.6% for Montreal)
 1,335 Park Extension children live below the poverty line, or 51.4% (29.3% for Montreal)
 1,340 seniors are low-income, or 33.2% (21.2% for Montreal)
 Renter households: 79.2% (vs 60.7% for Montreal)
 43.5% (vs 40.5% for Montreal)
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.
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.
Download Mental Health & Addiction Interventions for Youth Experiencing Homelessness: Practical Strategies for Front-line Providers for free at: homelesshub.ca/mentalhealthbook
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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.