Parliamentary Research Branch

PRB 99-1E


Prepared by:
Lyne Casavant
Political and Social Affairs Division
January 1999

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 relationships.(6)

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 women’s 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 woman’s income tends to decrease, while that of a man tends to increase: "While men’s income increases slightly, women’s 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 women’s homelessness…. Women-headed households in advanced industrial countries are more likely to have serious housing problems…, and, internationally, women face problems of attaining shelter that are directly related to their gender….(9)

   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.

   C. Aboriginal Peoples (12)

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 city’s 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.

   D. Families

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 Canada’s 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 particularly acute:

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 homeless.

(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, "L’itinérance 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 d’hébergement 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, p. 115-140.

(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 1996.

(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 Winnipeg’s 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 Master’s 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.