More than a century after the first International Women’s Day, there are women in Canada who remain severely disadvantaged and without a crucial necessity of life: A safe home. Despite 100 years of progress toward women’s equality, recent decades have seen a tragic and needless rise in women’s homelessness in this country.
Women sleep on the streets of our major cities, a virtual guarantee of experiencing sexual assault. Women trade survival sex with men for a place to crash for the night. Teenage girls, fleeing sexual abuse, violence and homophobia at home, squat in unsafe abandoned buildings, or move in with older men to survive.
The traditional image of a bundled man asleep on a sidewalk may be what comes to mind for most Canadians when homelessness is mentioned. The reality is more varied and complex. Conservative estimates suggest anywhere from 150,000-300,000 people are homeless in Canada. Street counts show 25-30% of people living on the streets or in shelters in large Canadian cities are women. Toronto shelters saw a 78% increase in shelter use among single women between 1992 and 1998. Young women are homeless in alarming numbers. Families experience homelessness, and single parent families, mostly led by women, make up the majority of homeless families.
Without a roof over their heads and a door to lock safely behind them, women are at great risk of physical, emotional and psychological harm. Women living on the streets of Canadian cities are highly vulnerable. Many street-involved women are abuse and trauma survivors struggling with resulting mental health and addiction issues. Yet, there remains a severe shortage of detox beds dedicated to women. Street-focused programs specifically for women are few and far between.
Women’s homelessness is often not visible. Studies focused on women identified the pattern of hidden homelessness. A woman couch-surfing with friends or relatives to avoid the street is among the hidden homeless. An older woman living with relatives who are exploiting her, or abusive, is among the hidden homeless. Women cycle through stays with friends, time in a shelter and time on the street, changing locations to avoid wearing out their welcome and closing off a crucial lifeline.
Every year, tens of thousands of women leave their homes, many with their children, for the temporary safety of a shelter for abused women. For these women, violence is the immediate cause of their homelessness and a women’s shelter or transition house may be the bridge to safe, permanent housing, or it may only be a respite in the cycle of violence and homelessness.
Losing housing, and having nowhere to call home, can arise from complex root causes, but is inextricably tied to poverty. Women who disproportionately experience poverty – single unattached women, women raising families on their own, First Nation, Métis and Inuit women, young women, women with mental health and addiction issues, racialized women and women with precarious immigration status – live at greater risk of homelessness.
That risk increases in times when incomes are stagnant or falling, when jobs get harder to find, and governments focus on cuts to spending, not services to citizens. In short, in times very much like today.