Homelessness in Canada

Homelessness in Canada has grown in hugeness and complexity since 1997.[1] While historically known as a crisis only of urban centres such as Montreal, Laval, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, and Toronto, increasing homelessness in suburban communities requires new services and resources.[2]

Graffiti of homeless in Quebec City

In recent years homelessness has become a major social issue in Canada. In Action Plan 2011, the Federal Government of Canada proposed $120 million annually from April 2014 until April 2019—with $70 million in new funding—to renew its Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPS). In dealing with homelessness in Canada, the government focus is on the Housing First model. Thus, private or public organizations across Canada are eligible to receive HPS subsidies to implement Housing First programs. Canada spends more than 30 billion annually on social service programs for the homeless.[3]


In 2007 most research and programs in Canada focused on "absolute homelessness" and there was no consistent definition of homelessness.[4] In 2012 the York University-based Canadian Homelessness Research Network (CHRN) released the first Canadian Definition of Homelessness.[5]

"Homelessness describes the situation of an individual or family without stable, permanent, appropriate housing, or the immediate prospect, means and ability of acquiring it. It is the result of systemic or societal barriers, a lack of affordable and appropriate housing, the individual/household’s financial, mental, cognitive, behavioural or physical challenges, and/or racism and discrimination. Most people do not choose to be homeless, and the experience is generally negative, unpleasant, stressful and distressing."

— CHRN, 2012

Stephen Gaetz, a homelessness researcher at York University, argued that the detailed classification of homelessness provided governments with more "precision" in figuring out how to draw up homeless plans.[6] The report cites 4 types: unsheltered, emergency-sheltered, provisionally-accommodated, and at risk of homelessness. The definition received a lot of support from advocates for the homeless.[6] Critics included Peter Goldring, an Alberta MP, member of the Edmonton Committee to End Homelessness, who argued that the CHRN's definition of homelessness painted an overly broad picture including those who were "having a hard time financially." Goldring felt that, "You don’t want to look at it coldly, but they’re really not in desperate need until they’re holding that eviction notice in their hand."[6]

Homeless countEdit

By 2008 the annual homeless count was considered to be a politically charged and methodologically contentious issue. The federal estimate of the core number of homeless people in Canada was 200,000 in 2005, or about 1 per cent of the population.[2] Homeless advocates estimated it to be closer to 20,000 annually, or 30,000 on any given night plus those in the hidden homeless category. This includes 6,000 youth nightly and 30,000 youth annually.[7]

Cost of homelessnessEdit

Based on the more conservative figure, the annual cost of homelessness in Canada in 2008 was approximately $5.5 to $7 billion in emergency services, organizations, and non-profits.[2]


Homelessness is a chronic problem for only a small minority of people; the vast majority of individuals are "one-time only" shelter users or experience episodic homelessness. However, this distinctly different subgroup of individuals who are "chronically homeless" consume about half of shelter beds and available resources at any given time.[8]

Some of the homeless who make use of homeless shelters are also employed.[9] Individuals and families are often simply priced out of private housing markets. In 1999, 2.8 million Canadian households (about 26%) fell below the minimum amount required to afford a basic home, gauged at $25,920. Five years later, this number rose to 3.2 million households (remaining about 26%).[10]


It was not until after 1962 that in Canada "homeless" came to mean the "unhoused" versus those simply living in poor-quality housing.[11] Previously, the "homeless" was a general term applied mostly to transient men with no family ties, such as the migrant workers who travelled by freight hopping during the Great Depression.[11]

Homelessness remained a minor concern as long as extremely cheap accommodation was available in 'skid row' rooming houses or flophouses located in the poorest parts of most major cities. Even the most destitute could find some form of housing, even if its quality was abysmal.

At the end of the Second World War in 1946, the federal government created the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) to make mortgages and home ownership more accessible to people and organizations.[2] The surplus generated by the CMHC was used in the 1980s to fund non-profit, Aboriginal, and rent supplement housing.

However, following changes to Canada's National Housing Act housing act in 1996 to give the CMHC "more flexibility", it was able to directly fund social housing and its role in supporting new and existing affordable housing diminished.[12] Today the CMHC still exists, and its annual surpluses ($7.6 billion in 2006) raises questions as to why some of this money cannot be spent on new housing initiatives.[13]

About 20,000 social housing units were created every year following the 1973 amendments to the National Housing Act.[11] Starting in the mid-1980s, the federal government initiated a series of cuts in funding for national housing programs.[12] While accurate statistics on the homeless population are hard to gather, it is the general consensus that from the 1980s onwards the number of homeless increased considerably.[citation needed]

Despite Canada's economy this trend continued, and perhaps even accelerated in the 1990s. For example, in Toronto admissions to homeless shelters increased by 75% between 1988 and 1998.[14] After 1993 the national affordable housing program initiated in 1973 was cut and Canada's focus in addressing homelessness in the 1990s was to create more homeless shelters and emergency services[2] A decade later in 2003 the federal government resumed spending on housing investment at $2.03 billion, a 25% decline from 1993 levels of $1.98 billion when adjusted for inflation (Laird 2007:15).[2]

On December 19, 2006 Prime Minister Harper announced social policies with $526 million of funding to tackle poverty and homelessness in Canada. The Homelessness Partnering Strategy received $270 million and Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation received $246 million to refurbish and renovate affordable housing, as well as to improve access for homeless people to various services and supports such as health and substance abuse treatment programs. Activists protested at Human Resources and Social Services Minister Diane Finley's offices in Ottawa.[15]

The first Canadian national report card on homelessness was compiled by the Canadian Homelessness Research Network (CHRN) and the National Alliance to End Homelessness in 2013.[7][Notes 1]


Why people become homeless is a complex question and the answers are as unique as each individual's history. People become homeless by many different paths; however, the most common reasons are "inability to pay rent (63%), conflict or abuse (36%), alcohol or drug use problems(10%)".[citation needed] Other factors can include mental disorders, foster care exits, exiting from jail or hospitalization, immigration, rising housing costs and decreased rent controls, federal and provincial downloading of housing programs, and low social assistance rates.[11]

While the causes are complex, the solutions to homelessness may be simple: "Homelessness may not be only a housing problem, but it is always a housing problem; housing is necessary, although sometimes not sufficient, to solve the problem of homelessness."[16] Policy changes are often criticized for punishing the poor instead of trying to solve the underlying problem.[17]

Lack of low-income housingEdit

A homeless Toronto woman sits on a park bench

While in 1966 30,000 new low-income housing units had been built across Canada, this had fallen to 7,000 in 1999. In the city of Calgary, with one of the most acute housing shortages, only 16 new units of rental housing were built in 1996.


A homeless man sleeps on the TTC subway.

The 1950s and 1960s also saw an international movement towards deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, moving them out of asylums and other facilities, and releasing them into the community. Studies found that the vast majority of those who had been placed in asylums could be healthy and productive members of society if placed in the community and provided with the proper care and medication.

Thus over these decades the number of people confined to mental institutions fell dramatically from just under 70,000 to about 20,000. However, while great savings were made by shutting down empty institutions much of this money was absorbed by general government funds, and did not make it into community care.

No assurances were made that those discharged had access to and were taking the medication they needed. While some of those discharged did integrate with the community, a significant number, estimated at around 75%, did not. Many of these individuals became homeless. Today up to 40% of homeless have some sort of mental illness.[18]

Justice system and homelessnessEdit

In a paper published in 2010, York University professor, Stephen Gaetz, argued that, "[p]risoners who are sentenced or who are awaiting trial often lose their jobs and housing, and without support, wind up in homeless shelters and drop-ins upon release ... When prisoners become homeless, their chances of reoffending increase."[19]

In 2005 Alberta initiated a three-year program offering an "alternative to sending people to jail or helping them when they are released".[19] Alberta's Pathways to Housing program, which includes about $7 million in provincial money, has been helping homeless Calgarians who have been in and out of the corrections system due to unpaid tickets for petty crimes.

Poverty in CanadaEdit

Poverty remains prevalent with certain groups in Canada. The measurement of poverty has been a challenge as there is no official government measure. Some groups, like the Canadian Council on Social Development and the National Anti-Poverty Organization, believe the low-income cut off published by Statistics Canada is applicable as a poverty measure regardless of whether its intent or designation is to be one. They have argued, that as it stands, the LICO is the best measure available that accurately measures a relative poverty rate.[citation needed] The LICO fell to a near-record low of 9.5% in 2006, down from a recent high of 16.7% in 1994.[20]

In the 2005 census, 702,650 Canadians were considered to be at-risk for homelessness in that they spent more than 50 per cent of their household income on shelter. Lack of income security combined with the lack of affordable housing creates the problem of "hidden" homelessness. The "hidden homeless" may actually fall back and forth between homelessness and being housed, making the problem of homelessness much larger than that identified in street or shelter counts.[2]

Cuts to Social Assistance (welfare)Edit

In the late 1990s, under Finance Minister Paul Martin, large cuts were made to transfer payments to Canada's provinces. At the same time, Canada removed a long-standing requirement of each province and territory to provide a livable rate of social assistance to all those in need. This led to a series of cuts to welfare rates and tightened eligibility rules, with many provinces competing with each other to offer the lowest assistance so those in need would leave. Alberta even offered bus tickets for welfare recipients to leave the province. In 2002, B.C.'s newly elected Liberal government introduced welfare reforms which in the coming years removed tens of thousands from that province's welfare rolls. All of this has had the effect of leaving thousands of people without the means to pay for even the most modest accommodation, resulting in many Canadians having no home and thus relying on homeless shelters or else sleeping outside.[21]

Indigenous living conditionsEdit

1 in 15 Indigenous Peoples in urban centres experience homelessness, compared to 1 in 128 for the general population. First Nation women have the lowest income rate of any group in Canada, and have the highest rate of experience violence. They also have a lack of mobility, due in part to reserve laws, and inability to own property.[22]

Indigenous youth are overrepresented in the homeless population of Canada.[22] Systematic discrimination has contributed to this as well as their overrepresentation in child welfare systems. When Europeans colonized Canada, indigenous peoples experienced an alienation from traditional forms of subsistence that occurred. There was also a loss of culture when the colonizing populations took over indigenous land and subjected them to European ways of life. One way this loss of culture can be seen is through residential schools. Survivors of residential schools faced physical, sexual, and emotional trauma.[23] The European settlers used these schools as a tool to assimilate indigenous youth, which has resulted in decades of trauma that can still be seen in indigenous communities today.[24]

Some researchers, and Indigenous Activists, argue that people living on reserve housing should be considered partly homeless, due to poor living conditions. Since Canada's definition of homelessness includes unsuitable, unstable, or unaffordable housing, reserve housing can be classified under this.[24]

Public policyEdit

The National Homeless Initiative (NHI), created in 1999, was the federal secretariat most directly responsible for homelessness matters until its closure in 2007. The NHI was created to fund transitional housing and a range of services for homeless people across the country. NHI funded the federal program Supporting Community Partnerships Initiative (SCPI) which covered the costs of temporary shelters and services for the homeless.[25]

The federal government replaced the NHI with the Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPS) which was allocated to spend $270 million between 2007 and 2009.[2] In September 2008, the Government of Canada announced that it would set aside funding for housing and homelessness programs of $387.9 million per year for the next five years.[26]

Canada is one of the few countries in the world without a national housing strategy (United Nations, 2009). Many of the federal governments' expenditures are cost-sharing, one-time only funding initiatives that lack long-term leadership on homelessness. The United Nations has also noted the lack of information on these expenditures, including the number of houses produced.[12]

Housing has been declared a fundamental human right. Canada helped to draft the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights that includes a right to access housing in Article 25. Canada also ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights in 1976, which recognizes an adequate standard of living, including housing, in Article 11.[27]

Homeless advocates maintain that government funding should be spent on securing affordable housing versus funding more homelessness programs.[2]


In 2008, the Alberta Secretariat for Action on Homelessness's Plan for Alberta, adopted a goal of ending homelessness in Alberta by 2019 with a focus on three key areas: rapid re-housing of homeless Albertans, providing client-centered supports to re-housed clients, and preventing homelessness.[28] Pathways to Housing Canada uses the Housing First model, a "client-driven strategy that provides immediate access to an apartment without requiring initial participation in psychiatric treatment or treatment for sobriety."[29]

Clients pay 30 percent of their income towards their rent: 85 percent of Pathways to Housing clients receive Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) benefits and 15 percent receive [30]

In 2007 Calgary's Pathways to Housing campaign included the opening of the Alex[31] By 2013 Calgary's Pathways to Housing had 150 individuals in scatter site homes.[32] The Alex Pathways to Housing uses the Housing First model, but it also uses Assertive Community Treatment (ACT), an integrated approach to healthcare where clients access a team of "nurses, mental health specialists, justice specialists and substance abuse specialists." Director Sue Fortune is committed to the 10 Year Plan To End Homelessless in the Calgary Region. Fortune reported that the Housing First approach resulted in a 66 percent decline in days hospitalized (from one year prior to intake compared to one year in the program), a 38 percent decline in times in emergency room, a 41 percent decline in EMS events, a 79 percent decline in days in jail and a 30 percent decline in police interactions.[29]

British ColumbiaEdit

In 2001, in British Columbia the service and shelter costs of homeless people ranged from $30,000 to $40,000 annually versus $22,000 to $28,000 per year for formerly homeless persons housed in social housing.[33]

Homelessness in VancouverEdit

In 2011, there were about 2,651 homeless people in Vancouver.[34][35]

See alsoEdit

Notes and referencesEdit


  1. ^ This research used the 2012 Canadian Homelessness Research Network (CHRN)definition of homelessness.


  1. ^ Gaetz, Stephen; Tarasuk, Valerie; Dachner, Naomi; Kirkpatrick, Sharon (June 2006), "'Managing' homeless youth in Toronto: Mismanaging food access and nutritional well-being", Canadian Review of Social Policy, 58 (43): 1–19
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Laird, Gordon; Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership (2007). Canada's 21st century paradox : a report for the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethnics in Leadership (PDF) (Report). Shelter: homelessness in a growth economy. Calgary, Alta.: Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership. ISBN 978-0-9730197-3-5. Archived from the original (PDF) on January 6, 2016. Retrieved October 23, 2020.
  3. ^ Action Plan: Homelessness Partnering Strategy, Action Plan, Government of Canada
  4. ^ Frankish, C.; Hwang, Stephen W.; Quantz, D. (2005), "Homelessness and health in Canada: Research lessons and priorities", Canadian Journal of Public Health, 96 (2): S23–S29, doi:10.1007/BF03403700, PMC 6976130, PMID 16078553
  5. ^ Canadian Homelessness Research Network (2012) Canadian Definition of Homelessness. Retrieved from "Canadian Definition of Homelessness". Archived from the original on 2013-07-05.
  6. ^ a b c Hopper, Tristin (September 12, 2012). "Critics say new definition of 'homeless' too broad, includes those only 'at risk'". Retrieved 12 February 2014.
  7. ^ a b Stephen Gaetz, Jesse Donaldson, Tim Richter, & Tanya Gulliver (2013)."The State of Homelessness in Canada." Toronto: Canadian Homelessness Research Network Press. ISBN 978-1-55014-632-5
  8. ^ The State of Homelessness in Canada [www.homelesshub.ca/SOHC2014a]
  9. ^ Housing Works: A Special Report 2008. Giving voice to the crisis [www.endhomelessnessottawa.ca]
  10. ^ Shapcott, M. (2008). New income numbers confirm growing income inequality; One-in-four Canadian households below fair housing income; New figures underline urgent need for national housing strategy. Wellesley Institute Backgrounder: Growing Income Inequality.
  11. ^ a b c d Hulchanski, J.D. (18 February 2009). Keynote address (PDF). Growing Home: Housing and Homelessness in Canada. University of Calgary.
  12. ^ a b c United Nations (2009). Report of the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context, Miloon Kothari. Based on Mission to Canada 9–22 October 2007.
  13. ^ Shapcott, M. (September 2006). Executive Summary from "Blueprint to End Homelessness in Toronto. Wellesley Institute (p.7).
  14. ^ 2000 Report Card on Homelessness, City of Toronto
  15. ^ 24 Hours (2006-12-20). "Cash for homeless follows rally". Sun Media.
  16. ^ Cushing N. Dolbeare, 1996, "Housing Policy: A General Consideration," in Homelessness in America, 1996, p, 34
  17. ^ Bateman, Lana (November 2011). "Paying For Being Homeless". The Media Coop.
  18. ^ Murphy, Barbara. On the Street: How We Created the Homeless. Winnipeg: J. Gordon Shillingford, c2000.
  19. ^ a b Derworiz, Colette (5 February 2010), Calgary police teams reach out to homeless, Calgary Herald, retrieved 28 May 2014
  20. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-01-14. Retrieved 2010-06-29.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  21. ^ Seth Klein; Jane Pulkingham (April 2008). Living on Welfare in BC: Experiences of Longer-Term "Expected to Work" Recipients (PDF) (Report). Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – BC Office and Raise the Rates.
  22. ^ a b Kidda, S, J, Thistle, T, Beaulieuc, B, O'Gradyd, & S, Gaetze (August 2018). "A national study of Indigenous youth homelessness in Canada". Public Health – via Elsevier.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  23. ^ Dawn, Colleen, Nancy, Smith, Varcoe, Edwards (December 2015). "Turning Around the Intergenerational Impact of Residential Schools on Aboriginal People". Canadian Journal of Nursing Research. 37.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  24. ^ a b Andrew Woolford & James Gacek (April 1, 2016). "Genocidal carcerality and Indian residential schools in Canada". Punishment & Society. 18 (4): 400–419. doi:10.1177/1462474516641375. S2CID 147431910.
  25. ^ Shapcott, M. (October 2007). "Ten Things You Should Know about housing and homelessness." Wellesley Institute. Policy Primer.
  26. ^ Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Government of Canada website [1] Archived 2013-06-11 at the Wayback Machine
  27. ^ Experiencing Homelessness: Fourth Report Card on Ending Homelessness in Ottawa—January to December 2007. The Alliance to End Homelessness in Ottawa, 2008. [www.endhomelessnessottawa.ca]
  28. ^ Alberta Secretariat For Action On Homelessness (October 2008), "A Plan For Alberta: ending homelessness in 10 years" (PDF), alberta.ca, archived from the original on May 30, 2014
  29. ^ a b Fortune, Sue (October 2013). "Pathways to Housing Housing First Model adapted for use in the Canadian context" (PDF). Saskatchewan. Archived from the original (PDF) on 21 February 2014. Retrieved 11 February 2014.
  30. ^ Alberta Works, Government of Alberta
  31. ^ "Pathways to Housing". The Alex. 2014. Archived from the original on 2014-02-22. Retrieved 2014-05-28.
  32. ^ Fortune, Sue (April 1, 2013). Archived copy (PDF) (Report). Calgary, Alberta. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 22, 2014. Retrieved February 11, 2014.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  33. ^ Margaret, E. et al, (2001). "Homelessness—Causes and Effects, Volume 3: The Costs of Homelessness in British Columbia. Ministry of Social Development and Economic Security." Government of British Columbia.
  34. ^ Hwang, Stephen W. (2012), "Homelessness and Health", Canadian Medical Association Journal, 164 (2)
  35. ^ 2011 Metro Vancouver Homeless Count (PDF), Metro Vancouver, 12 February 2012

Further readingEdit

  • Abramovich, I.A. (2012). No Safe Place to Go: LGBTQ Youth Homelessness in Canada - Reviewing the Literature. http://ejournals.library.ualberta.ca/index.php/cjfy/article/view/16579
  • Abramovich, I.A. (2011). LGBTQ Youth Homelessness. http://ilona6.com
  • Agencies Helping the Homeless Told Not to Encourage Encampments, CBC News, January 16, 2009.
  • Experiencing Homelessness: Fourth Report Card on Ending Homelessness in Ottawa—January to December 2007. The Alliance to End Homelessness in Ottawa, 2008.
  • Fortin, Véronique. "Keep Your Coins, I Want Change! The Homeless and the Shrinking Public Space in Montréal" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Law and Society Association, Hilton Bonaventure, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, May 27, 2008
  • Frankish, C., Hwang, S., & Quantz, D. (2005). Homelessness and health in Canada: Research lessons and priorities. Canadian Journal of Public Health, 96(2).
  • Gaetz, Stephen, Tarasuk, V., Dackner, N., Kirkpatrick, S. (2006). "Managing" Homeless Youth in Toronto: Mismanaging Food Access & Nutritional Well-being. Canadian Review of Social Policy, 58(43), 1-19.
  • Gulliver, T. (2008). York MES Student coordinates first heat registry program. http://www.yorku.ca/yfile/archive/index.asp?Article=10875
  • Hausfather, Nadia (2005). 'To the streets cuz we're on the streets': Exploring the controversy of homeless youth activism in Kitchener-Waterloo (Ontario) (M.A. thesis). Wilfrid Laurier University.
  • Housing Works: A Special Report 2007. Giving voice to the crisis.
  • Hulchanski, J.D. (2009). "Homelessness in Canada: Past, Present, Future." Conference keynote address, Growing Home: Housing and Homelessness in Canada, Canadian Policy Research Networks. University of Calgary, February 18, 2009
  • Hwang, Stephen W. "Homelessness and Health." CMAJ, January 23, 2001; 164 (2)
  • Koyama, Danielle K. (2002). Internal displacement: A study of homelessness in the city of Toronto (M.S.W. thesis). Wilfrid Laurier University.
  • Laird, Gordon (2007), "Shelter-Homelessness in a growth economy: Canada's 21st century paradox" (PDF), A Report for the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership, Calgary, Alberta, archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-01-06
  • Layton, Jack, Homelessness: The Making and Unmaking of a Crisis ISBN 0-14-028888-0
  • Margaret, E. et al., (2001). "Homelessness—Causes and Effects, Volume 3: The Costs of Homelessness in British Columbia. Ministry of Social Development and Economic Security." Government of British Columbia.
  • Murphy, Barbara. On the Street: How We Created the Homeless. Winnipeg: J. Gordon Shillingford, c2000.
  • Roberts, Alison J. Rice (2001). A qualitative study of presently and formerly homeless female adolescents (Ontario) (M.A. thesis). Wilfrid Laurier University.
  • Shapcott, M. (September 2006). Executive Summary from "Blueprint to End Homelessness in Toronto. Wellesley Institute (p.7).
  • Shapcott, M. (October 2007). "Ten Things You Should Know about housing and homelessness." Wellesley Institute. Policy Primer.
  • Shapcott, M. (2008). New income numbers confirm growing income inequality; One-in-four Canadian households below fair housing income; New figures underline urgent need for national housing strategy. Wellesley Institute Backgrounder: Growing Income Inequality.
  • "A Snapshot of Homelessness in Canada," National Homelessness Initiative (2006).
  • Street Health Report 2007: Highlights and Action Plan. Toronto.
  • United Nations (2009). Report of the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context, Miloon Kothari. Based on Mission to Canada 9–22 October 2007.

External linksEdit

  Media related to Homelessness in Canada at Wikimedia Commons