Family homelessness in Canada continues to be an emergent and troubling issue. 

In Calgary, for example, homelessness decreased by 1.3% overall between 2008 and 2014; at the same time, the number of families accessing shelter and short-term housing increased by 31%.

Homelessness for families is an especially troubling issue, because most are single mothers who have experienced long histories of trauma related to violence and abuse. The presence of children also makes it disturbing. Moreover, demographic data from Calgary’s family shelters shows that half of the families are Indigenous and approximately 30% are newcomers to Canada.

Understanding homelessness for families and developing subsequent responses require an understanding of gender and culture-related pathways into homelessness. Our research project, “Understanding Mothers Experiencing Homelessness,” was grounded in critical social theory, which connects individual issues to structural issues of power and exclusion. This research method examines structural barriers and the implications of power differences, which can help us to understand inequities in service delivery and policy development for people considered vulnerable. This elevates the analysis away from “problems with individuals,” towards “problems with public systems,” allowing more holistic responses.

For this research, we spent 12 months conducting retrospective one-on-one interviews with 15 mothers. We also engaged a small group of mothers living in short-term housing and a committee of community-based service providers and government representatives to provide advice and guidance throughout the project.

Some of what we learned was anticipated as all the interviewees had experienced long-term poverty, violence and interactions with child intervention authorities. They also had limited social and familial supports.

What Did the Mothers Tell us?

Illustration on pathway out of homelessness
Media Folder: 

What we did not anticipate, however, was the fact that most of the mothers who volunteered to participate were newcomers to Canada. All of them had experienced multiple types of abuse in childhood, by spouses, partners, government officials or by other authority figures. Because of this, all of them felt “trapped” between multiple public systems with emergency shelters as their only available form of support. Many of the mothers talked about difficulties proving their residency status in Canada due to their partners withholding documentation as form of control, or because they had fled a violent situation. Most were unable to access affordable housing, social assistance and health care because they had no identification and no means to access it. The biggest barriers to exiting homelessness were structural barriers, which were essentially “siloed policies” -- sectors that were not collaborating and complicated or inaccessible services. Also, shelter staff felt ill-equipped to deal with the complications of immigration policies and processes, and the complexity of trauma faced by mothers and children.

What Should We Do?

With the advice and guidance of our group of mothers and our community advisory committee, we developed several recommendations:

1) Enhance and expand the continuum of housing and support options in the family sector. Formalized partnerships between shelters and immigration/settlement agencies could help bridge gaps between the homelessness and immigration systems. Families need flexible funding for costs associated with processing status applications or obtaining identification and rent supplements that follow them. This means rent supplements can be portable – tied to the tenant and move with the tenant from unit to unit -- attached to a specific housing unit or program. For example, if a family is in a housing program for two years and has access to rent supplements and case management, they could keep their rent supplement even when they no longer need case management.

2) Promote strong social networks for women including peer support. Including someone who has lived the same social experience and has successfully “moved on” is emerging as a promising practice in violence interventions and in housing programs. Inclusion of peers could be an important first step in helping vulnerable and victimized women to build healthy networks and relationships.

3) Recognize the complexity of family homelessness and focus on culture and trauma. Many of the women had experienced multiple forms of violence, sometimes at the hands of authority figures. An inherent fear of authority or retribution may impact discussions of violence, mental health or substance use. Women may not trust persons in authority including service providers, because of previous traumatic experiences at the hands of people they thought they could trust. More research is needed to develop a framework for cultured and trauma-informed care that is reflective of diverse and multiple experiences. One place to start is to recognize the profoundly difficult pathways into homelessness for women and children, and acknowledge that provision of housing without recognition of cultural experiences, and the need of supports for trauma, is not likely to lead to a sustainable end to homelessness.

4) Scan the eligibility criteria and data collection approaches of affordable housing providers. All of the women we interviewed experienced multiple barriers to accessing affordable housing. Many cited a lack of information, long wait lists or unclear rules about eligibility. There is also no transparent communication about the eligibility criteria of agency clients and/or any shared data on affordable housing clients. Calgary’s affordable housing “universe” is in need of an assessment of current capacity gaps, to make evidence-informed decisions about how to fill gaps and ensure the available housing is going to people who need it the most.

5) Increase efforts to prevent family violence. Multiple experiences of violence led the women to lose or jeopardize their social networks. These experiences drove them into poverty, which ultimately led to homelessness. Interagency collaboration outside of the homelessness sector, including those working in violence prevention, immigration and settlement agencies, legal advice and low-income legal support agencies, education and health care could lead to a “violence prevention task force,” which would develop and share best practices for identifying, screening and intervening for violence. Recognizing and preventing family violence is an upstream mechanism for preventing family homelessness.


If we can prevent multiple forms of violence and bridge gaps between immigration, homelessness and violence sectors to develop holistic supports for women, we have the potential to end and prevent homelessness for families. Continued increases in the number of families experiencing homelessness is unacceptable. It's time to change the way we tackle family homelessness.

Read the full report:

Further reading:

Agger, B. (2006). Critical social theories: An introduction. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.