COMPOSITION OF THE HOMELESS
Political and Social Affairs Division
Even today, many people think of the homeless as a
relatively homogeneous group largely composed of older, alcoholic and vaguely crazy men.
This traditional image, which has long informed our collective imagination, as it has the
literature on the subject,(1) does not
correspond, however, to the present composition of the homeless population.
With recent changes in this population, it is no longer
possible to speak of one profile of homelessness rather, there is a diversity of profiles.
The homeless now include women, children, teen-aged youths, the mentally ill, newly
arrived immigrants, refugees, women victims of spousal violence, persons recently released
from prison, and casual workers. Each of these homeless subgroups may be further broken
down by age, sex, ethnic origin and occupational status.
A number of studies have revealed that the shelters for the
homeless are being frequented each year by welfare recipients, the unemployed, the
mentally ill, former psychiatric patients and the physically disabled. According to the
1987 survey of the Canadian Council on Social Development (CCSD), 20% of the persons who
were in shelters in Canada on 22 January 1987 were suffering from mental illnesses or had
previously received psychiatric treatment, 3% were afflicted with a physical disability,
close to 50% were unemployment insurance claimants and about 50% were on social
assistance. A 1997 study in Calgary found that 45% of the homeless who were interviewed
were working, albeit in unstable and low-paying jobs.(2)
Researchers and field workers increasingly suggest that the
causes and risk factors for homelessness are not the same for everyone. In fact, they say,
each of the homeless subgroups appears to have significant differences that ought to
influence how we deal with homelessness. Moreover, the solutions with the greatest promise
for eliminating the problem, researchers suggest, could be very different, depending on
whether they are directed to women, young people, native people, or refugees.
The following paragraphs examine the features of the
various subgroups among the homeless and the risk factors for each one. Canadian
literature on the subject is sparse and fragmented so that data on the scope of the
problem for each subgroup, or even the factors involved in the descent into homelessness,
are not available. Some homeless subgroups (women, youth and Native peoples) have
attracted particular attention from Canadian researchers with opinions varying widely as
to the sources of the problem. It should be noted that only the data from the CCSD 1987
survey apply to Canada as a whole; while incomplete, they are nevertheless the best data
on the changes in the composition of the national homeless population since the 1980s. As
well, the results of various Canadian studies often give widely differing pictures of the
homeless. These differences are explained by the significant discrepancies in the
definitions and methodologies adopted by the researchers. Thus, it is difficult, to say
the least, to attempt to compare the research results.
Some Groups Previously Underrepresented among the Homeless
A. Women (3)
According to the CCSD survey and a number of Canadian
studies, women account for about 30% of the homeless population(4) and are therefore less noticeable than the men. All
researchers agree, however, that this lower visibility of homeless women results from a
number of factors. First, since the enumeration of the homeless is generally based on the
users of services, homeless women are less evident simply because fewer services cater to
them. Some studies have also suggested that homeless women are less visible on the street
because they pay more attention than homeless men to their personal hygiene and clothing.(5) Furthermore, women are normally
homeless for shorter periods than men, since they often manage to find shelter in exchange
for sexual or domestic services. One writer even states:
They are simply not safe. As well, because they are so at
risk "on the street," women are frequently forced into the condition of
cohabiting with men, often residing in physically, sexually, and emotionally abusive
The relationship between violence against women and
homelessness is complex, however. Some studies have indeed shown that a large percentage
of homeless women have been subjected to sexual and physical violence, are more likely
than men to experience violence while they are homeless, and are often living on the
street because they are fleeing family violence."
Numerous risk factors are associated with womens
homelessness, such as poverty, family violence, alcoholism, drug abuse, mental and
physical health problems, and lack of affordable housing. However, if we compare the
situation of women with that of men,(7)
it appears that women are relatively more affected by a weakening of family ties. A number
of studies have in fact shown that many women become homeless as a result of a breakdown
in a relationship. The financial consequences of a divorce or a breakdown in marital
relations are generally unfortunate for women. After a divorce, for example, a
womans income tends to decrease, while that of a man tends to increase: "While
mens income increases slightly, womens household income after divorce drop [sic]
over 40%, and the poverty rate for women increases almost threefold
."(8) The language used by homeless women
also confirms the importance of relationship breakdowns in causing their homelessness;
generally speaking, homeless women tend to explain their situation by reference to the
family. But, although there are many reasons why women become homeless, it is clear that
their greater poverty, together with sexism, aggravate their vulnerability when it comes
to finding housing.
Several researchers have stressed the feminization of
poverty as a causal factor in womens homelessness
. Women-headed households in
advanced industrial countries are more likely to have serious housing problems
internationally, women face problems of attaining shelter that are directly related to
B. Youth (10)
Thousands of children run away from home each year in
Canada. In 1995, for example, 75% of the 56,749 missing children who were reported to the
police were runaways. Police departments say that, although 90% of these runaway children
return home within 60 days of leaving, the others never go back. Alarming as these figures
are, runaways account for only a portion of the homeless youth population, which also
includes young people living in shelters with their mother or both parents. The 1987 CCSD
survey found that 11.5% of the people in the shelters documented were under the age of 16.
Street or homeless youth tend to range in age between 12 and 24, the girls being generally
younger and the boys older.(11)
The situation of homeless youth, as portrayed in the data
from the relevant services, is clearly not encouraging. Several researchers and field
workers have noted in this regard that the street children and runaway youth use various
strategies to survive when living on the street or running away: staying with friends,
engaging in prostitution and committing offences. And the longer they are homeless, the
more likely they are to commit offences in order to survive.
Mistreatment is often cited as a factor in youth
homelessness. A number of studies have confirmed that many homeless young people have been
victims of sexual, physical or psychological abuse. A 1992 study by social service
agencies in the Ottawa-Carleton region indicated that 75% of the street children
interviewed had left home because of sexual assaults or physical and/or psycho-emotional
abuse. Living on the street is no protection, however: although street life is a violent
environment for anyone, it is even more violent for homeless young people and women, and
is often accompanied by multiple risks.
Again, more than one factor is associated with youth
homelessness, however. The literature on the subject commonly links changes in the job
market, particularly the growing use of casual labour, to the increased vulnerability of
young people. Casual, unskilled employment in the service sector often does not provide
the security and wages needed to acquire secure housing. Many young people are not
managing to earn enough income from employment to provide themselves with stable
accommodation. Given the threshold skills that have been required for most jobs since the
1980s, access to the job market is especially difficult for those without specialized
training or much academic achievement.
The growing presence of young people among the homeless is
a phenomenon noted by virtually everyone in the field. However, there is much work to be
done before we have an adequate understanding of why this is the case in Canada.
There is no denying the obvious presence of homeless
Aboriginal people in some regions of the country. A number of studies have attempted to
quantify the problem in certain Canadian cities.
- According to a report on the health of the
homeless in Toronto, Native people, Blacks and Asiatics made up one third of the sample
studied.(13) In Toronto, Native people
account for 25% of the homeless population, although they make up only 2% of the
citys total population.(14)
- It has been estimated that 72% of the homeless men
in some Winnipeg neighbourhoods are Aboriginals.(15)
- In Vancouver, a study of 60 homeless women in the
downtown area disclosed that 50% of them were Aboriginals.(16)
- A survey in Calgary found that of the 615 homeless
people surveyed on 26 May 1996, 20% were Aboriginals, 3% Asiatics and 3% Blacks.(17)
- A Saskatoon study found that the majority of young
people living on the street were Aboriginals.(18)
Generally speaking, the Aboriginal population differs
significantly from the non-Aboriginal. Research has shown that the Aboriginal population
is characterized, inter alia, by lower educational and income levels, higher
unemployment and poverty levels, a larger proportion of single-parent families and
generally poorer housing, which is more likely to be rented. These factors are major
contributors to Aboriginal homelessness, although others (such as drug and alcohol abuse
and mental illness) are often cited. As one author has stated:
Aboriginal homelessness has many features in common with
homelessness in the general population, but it also has several distinctive features
(e.g., rural-urban migration, racism and discrimination, "Third World"
on-reserve housing). Similarly many of the same strategies are recommended to address both
Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal homelessness. However, the literature indicates that the
Aboriginal homeless have special needs (e.g., cultural appropriateness, self
determination, traditional healing techniques).(19)
The literature on housing discrimination emphasizes racism
and sexism. Clearly, racism aggravates the vulnerability of Aboriginal people; however, it
also affects members of the ethnic communities and increases their vulnerability to
homelessness. It should be noted in this connection that Canadian studies on homelessness
have generally ignored ethnicity, although U.S. studies consider it to be a significant
risk factor. Racism and language barriers clearly constitute additional obstacles to
finding housing for some members of the ethnic communities.
In the United States, unlike the case in Canada, it is
increasingly common to find entire families among the homeless. The literature frequently
attributes this difference to Canadas relatively higher levels of social assistance.
The U.S. studies have shown that most homeless families are headed by women,(20) something that the Canadian data
suggest may be equally true in this country. In fact, in the Ottawa-Carleton area, women
headed most of the 1,263 families (with 2,036 children) that sought refuge in shelters
between January 1986 and August 1988. An article in The Globe and Mail in February
1996 reported a 45% increase over the previous year in the number of families seeking
emergency shelter in Metropolitan Toronto. Most of these families had been evicted from
their homes for failure to pay the rent. Some attribute this problem to a reduction of
about 22% in social assistance.
Families, especially single-parent families headed by
women, are very vulnerable to homelessness, which often seems to result when potential
back-up resources, such as the extended family and friends, are exhausted. Social
isolation is a major factor in family homelessness.
The families most at risk are those in which domestic
violence prevails. The situation of mothers who are the victims of family violence is
Child custody issues inevitably complicate the situation
for a battered woman who has left her home. If she takes the child with her, she can be
challenged in court for placing them in an "unstable environment," that is, a
shelter. If, for safety reasons, she decides to leave the children with her parents or a
friend, she could be attacked in court for abandoning them. If she leaves them with the
abuser, she could jeopardize their safety and be charged with abandonment as well.(21)
It is still very difficult to present a portrait of
homeless families in Canada today. Very little research deals with the topic, and none
provides nation-wide data, other than the controversial 1987 survey by the Canadian
Council on Social Development. Further research into this issue is needed, as it is also
needed for all issues affecting women, violence against women and the role of the family
in our societies, so that we can improve our understanding of family homelessness.
At present, we have insufficient knowledge of the
composition of the homeless population and the particular characteristics of each of its
subgroups. The results of studies of the homeless are hard to compare, given their
significant differences. However, notwithstanding the individual characteristics of the
various homeless subgroups, all homeless persons, and those in serious risk of becoming
so, have poverty in common. That is why, in view of the changes in the job and housing
markets, it seems clear that an increasing number of the working poor (single mothers,
casual workers, school drop-outs, etc.) are in danger of joining the ranks of the
(1) A. Viexliard, Le clochard,
Desclée de Brouwer, Paris, 1957. See also N. Anderson, The Hobo, University of
Chicago Press, Chicago, 1923.
(2) Julio Arboleda-Florez and Heather Holley, Calgary
Homelessness Study: Final Report, December 1997, Alberta Health Report, Alberta, 1997.
(3) For further information, consult Novac, Brown and
Bourbonnais (1996); Claudine Mercier, "Litinérance chez la femme," Revue
québécoise de psychologie, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1988, p. 79-93.
(4) CCSD (1987); Louise Fournier, Énumération de
la clientèle des centres dhébergement pour itinérants à Montréal, Montreal,
1989; Ministère de la Main-d'oeuvre et de la Sécurité du Revenu, Les sans-abri au
Québec: étude exploratoire, 1988.
(5) Novac, Brown and Bourbonnais (1996), p. 21.
(6) Kathy Hardill, Developing a Methodology for
Survey Research with Homeless Women and Men, Street Health, Toronto, 1993, p. 21.
(7) It appears that exclusion from the job market is a
major factor in the homelessness of men.
(8) Novac, Brown and Bourbonnais (1996), p. 2.
(9) Ibid., p. 17.
(10) J. R. Wolch and S. Rowe, "On the Streets:
Mobility Paths of the Urban Homeless," City and Society, Vol. 6, No. 2, 1992,
(11) Tullio Caputo and Katharine Kelly, Canada
Health Action Children and Youth, Éditions MultiMondes, Quebec, 1998.
(12) For further information on this question, see:
Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Aboriginal Peoples in Urban Centres,
Department of Supply and Services, Ottawa, 1995; Department of Indian Affairs and Northern
Development, Highlights of Aboriginal Conditions 1981-2001, October 1995; Kim
Hopper, "Taking the Measure of Homelessness: Recent Research on Scale and Race,"
Clearinghouse Review, Vol. 29, No. 7, 1995, p. 730-739; Canada Mortgage and Housing
Corporation, The Housing Conditions of Aboriginal People in Canada, No. 27, August
(13) Eileen Ambrioso, Cathy Dilin Baker et Kathy
Hardill, The Street Health Report: A Study of the Health Status and Barriers to Health
Care of Homeless Women and Men in the City of Toronto, 1992, p. 3.
(14) Arboleda-Florez and Holley (1997).
(15) Christopher Hauch, Coping Strategies and
Street Life: The Ethnography of Winnipegs Skid Row Region, Report No. 11,
Winnipeg, Institute of Urban Studies, 1985.
(16) Jane Wycliffe Nesbit Kinegal, Finding the Way
Home: A Response to the Housing Needs of the Homeless Women of the Downtown East Side,
Vancouver, University of British Columbia Masters Thesis, 1989.
(17) City of Calgary, Homeless Count in Downtown
Calgary, Alberta, Canada, 1996, City of Calgary Community and Social Development
Department of Social Research Unit, 1996.
(18) T. Caputo, R. Weiler and K. Kelly, Phase II of
the Runaways and Street Youth Project, Solicitor General of Canada, Police Policy and
Research Division, Department of Supply and Services Canada, 1994.
(19) Beavis, Klos, Carter and Douchant (1997), p. vi.
(20) Novac, Brown and Bourbonnais (1996), p. 25.
(21) Zappardino and DeBare (1992), in Novac, Brown
and Bourbonnais (1996), p. 28.