In this bi-weekly blog series, I explore recent research on homelessness, and what it means for the provision of services to prevent or end homelessness. Read the first blog here.
Do a Google Images search of the word “homeless” and you will find page after page of pictures of men. Look to published reports, public presentations, websites of service providers or advocacy organizations who work in the sector, and you will find mostly images of men. As emergency shelter occupancy rates and counts of homelessness time after time find higher proportions of men than women, it is presumed that more men experience homelessness than women. What is up for debate is exactly what proportion we are talking about. Moreover, what does the research tell us about rates of homelessness?
Answering this question is tricky due to the gendered nature of the experience of homelessness. We know from qualitative research that women are less likely to be visibly present at services for people experiencing homelessness. This can be because women are more likely to have children in their care and are worried to have them apprehended, because women are avoiding men who have harmed them who use these services, or just general safety concerns about accessing mixed gender spaces. In this context, we know counts won’t paint a complete picture; especially when we consider the range of typologies represented in the Canadian Definition of Homelessness.
Brett Feldman and colleagues came up with a novel way to address this question: Look at data on individuals entering an emergency department. In their study presenting the prevalence of homelessness by gender in an emergency department population in Pennsylvania they screened 4,395 patients on housing status and gender. This offers a particularly novel approach. While individuals have some choice regarding accessing social services, choice is far more limited in the context of an emergency medical condition. Therefore, the proportions seen among people presenting at a hospital emergency department are more likely to represent ‘true’ population proportions than might be present in an emergency shelter.
They found that 7.4% of their emergency department population who were homeless identified as male, and 6.8% identified as female; with 0.07% identifying as transgender. Interestingly, the number of individuals who slept “rough” in the past two months was also almost identical, with 40 women and 41 men having slept rough. This confronts data on rough sleepers, which also tend to skew male, indicating that perhaps men are more likely to be counted among enumerations of rough sleepers.
Ultimately, there were no statistically significant differences in the proportions of males and females who experienced homelessness.
While there are obvious limitations to this study in terms of the geographic and public policy context, it is the first study I have read that finds a way of determining proportion of homelessness by gender outside of homeless-serving agencies or rough sleeping situations. I believe that this study provides us warning to not to continue to perpetuate the myth that homelessness is a primarily male experience.