Estimating the number of people experiencing homelessness in Canada has been a source of debate for years. The Homelessness Partnering Secretariat (HPS) has regularly used the estimate that between 150,000 and 300,000 individuals experience homelessness in Canada each year, with advocates often employing the higher number. However, there has never been a concerted, coordinated or consistent effort to enumerate homelessness in Canada. Until recently we have relied on ball-park estimates, based on unreliable and incomplete data.
Fortunately, things have begun to change. More communities across the country are using Point-in-Time counts to determine the number of people who are experiencing homelessness on a given night, and we are also now accumulating more reliable data on shelter usage. In 2013, the Government of Canada released “The National Shelter Study: Emergency Shelter Use in Canada 2005-2009” (Segaert, 2012), which for the first time gave us reliable shelter data to inform a national estimate of homelessness. In the fall of 2016, the second national analysis of emergency shelter data was released by the Government of Canada’s Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPS). Finally, we have reliable data to estimate the number of people who experience homelessness.
How many people are homeless in a given year?
In the State of Homelessness in Canada 2016 report, it was estimated that at least 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness in a given year. The actual number is potentially much higher, given that many people who are unhoused live with friends or relatives, and do not come into contact with emergency shelters. Data from a Ipsos Reid poll in March 2013 suggests that as many as 1.3 million Canadians have experienced homelessness or extremely insecure housing at some point during the past five years.
How many people are homeless on a given day?
The number of Canadians who experience homelessness on any given night in Canada is estimated to be minimally 35,000 individuals. The reader should be cautioned that this is only a rough estimate (for more details on our methodology for calculating this figure, see the endnotes section of the full report). Nevertheless, this is the best estimate of homelessness developed in Canada to date, and includes people who are:
I. Staying in Emergency Homelessness Shelters (14,400). There are approximately 15,467 permanent shelter beds, and in 2009 an average of 14,400 were occupied (Segaert, 2012:27) Between 2010 and 2014, the number of people using shelters decreased. However, the occupancy rates at shelters have increased from 82% of beds being full in 2005, to 92.4% of beds being full in 2014. The duration of stays beyond 30 days have also increased, from 9.1% in 2005 to 12% in 2014.
II. Staying in Violence Against Women shelters (7,350). In 2010, there were 9,961 beds for women and children fleeing violence and abuse. This includes not only emergency shelters, but also transitional and second stage housing. A Point-in-Time count conducted on April 15, 2010 showed that 7,362 beds were occupied by women and children (Burczycka & Cotter, 2011). A 2017 survey found that 44% of Violence Against Women shelters were full on a given day.
III. Unsheltered (2,880). If one draws from the data comparing homelessness in Canadian cities, one can estimate the unsheltered population. On average, for every one hundred people in the shelter system, there are 20 people who are unsheltered.
IV. Temporary institutional accommodation (4,464). Of those communities that count some portion of the provisionally accommodated, there are 31 people in this category for every 100 staying in emergency shelters.
There may be as many as 50,000 “hidden homeless" Canadians on a given night. Often referred to as couch surfing, this includes people who are temporarily staying with friends, relatives or others because they have nowhere else to live and no immediate prospect of permanent housing. There is no reliable data on hidden homelessness in Canada at the national level and very little at the community level. One Canadian study in Vancouver (Eberle, et al., 2009) estimated 3.5 people experienced hidden homelessness for every one person experiencing homelessness. While the methodology of this study is sound, it was conducted in only one city, and the differences between cities, their infrastructure to support homelessness and their homeless population are quite profound. Applied nationally with a more conservative 3:1 ratio, as many as 50,000 people could be estimated to experience hidden homelessness on any given night in Canada.
Chronic Homelessness – How long do experiences of homelessness last?
For the vast majority of people who become unhoused, the experience is rather short. In Canada, though the median length of stay in emergency shelter is approximately 50 days, most people experience homelessness for less than a month (29% stay only one night), and manage to leave homelessness on their own, usually with little support. For these people homelessness is a one-time only event. People who are chronically homeless (long-term) or episodically homeless (moving in and out of homelessness), form a smaller percentage of the overall homeless population, but at the same time use more than half the emergency shelter space in Canada and are most often the highest users of public systems.
Based on our estimate of the total number of people experiencing homelessness who use shelters on an annual basis (200,000), we can project the following numbers of chronic, episodic and transitionally homeless persons in Canada:
Those experiencing chronic homelessness: 4,000 to 8,000
Those experiencing episodic homelessness: 6,000 to 22,000
Those who are transitionally homeless: 176,000 to 188,000
Reproduced from: Stephen Gaetz, Jesse Donaldson, Tim Richter, & Tanya Gulliver (2013). The State of Homelessness in Canada 2013. Toronto: Canadian Homelessness Research Network Press.