This question came from Joy via our latest website survey. Though she specifically asked about divorce, I’ll respond with information on general relationship breakdown as well, as not all people are legally married.

Oh, how I wish I could just give you statistics. Due to the complicated nature of homelessness and inaccurate population counts, we don’t have solid numbers on how divorce and relationship/family breakdown contribute to homelessness.

Avalon Housing's triggers of homelessness graphic
Media Folder: 

According to Homeless Link and Crisis, relationship breakdown—be it between partners, family members, and/or friends—is the number one reported cause of lost accommodations. Avalon Housing, a U.S. supportive housing organization, estimates it triggers homelessness 10% of the time (pictured right). Chamberlain and Guy’s study on pathways to adult homelessness found that of the five “main pathways” to homelessness, family breakdown accounted for 11% of instances. A report from the Parliament of Canada also lists marital breakdown as a key “risk factor” for homelessness, citing Finnie’s analysis that after divorce, 40% of women are in worse economic circumstances and are three times as likely to live in poverty. For Indigenous people living on reserves, marital breakdown often meant one spouse (often with children) had to leave the reserve entirely, putting them at risk of homelessness.

Sudden breakups or divorces are often traumatic, life-altering circumstances that contribute to homelessness for many reasons: loss of combined income, legal fees, extra payments, and so on. Both men and women are affected by relationship breakdown, but describe their experiences differently. One Canadian study found that women reported becoming homeless due to social circumstances or leaving bad/abusive relationships, while men more often framed their actions as “walking away” from situations. In almost all of the interviews, participants described other non-relationship factors that also contributed to their homelessness.

One particularly vulnerable population is older people. A Canadian study on older people frequenting homeless shelters found that family breakdown is more of a contributor to homelessness for people over 65. Older women who are separated, widowed or divorced are particularly vulnerable (as I wrote before) due to a variety of factors that result in financial instability.

This is also the case outside of North America. A 2004 UK study reported that the rise of divorce contributed to more homelessness in people over the age of 50. A news report on the study stated that over 27,000 householders became homeless directly because of relationship breakdown, but the study outlines other causes as well: negative outcomes in investing and economic difficulties, to name a few.

While family and relationship breakdowns are significant factors in many people losing their housing, we have to also be mindful of how they relate with other causes of homelessness, like structural factors and systems failures.

This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at thehub@edu.yorku.ca and we will provide a research-based answer.

Photo credit: Avalon Housing

Emma WoolleyResearch AssistantCanadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub: York University