Search form

Become a Member Today Sign Up

Jul 2018 | The Housing Issue


We are at a pivotal moment in addressing homelessness in Canada. For decades, the Federal Government did not prioritize investments in safe, adequate, and affordable housing. Coupled with shifting economic and social landscapes, the modern homelessness crisis was made. In order to develop long-term solutions to homelessness, we must recognize that homelessness exists along a continuum. In this article, we discuss the full extent of homelessness in Canada, including the relationship between a lack of affordable housing and the homelessness crisis. We argue that preventing and ending homelessness is achievable so long as investments, strategies, policies, and practices account for those at risk of homelessness and/or who are precariously housed.


I. Homelessness in Canada


To accurately understand the homelessness problem, we must properly define it. The Canadian Definition of Homelessness reads:

Homelessness describes the situation of an individual, family or community without stable, safe, 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, unhealthy, unsafe, stressful, and distressing.[i]


The definition outlines several categories of homelessness: unsheltered; emergency sheltered; provisionally accommodated (i.e., short-term, temporary housing); and at risk of homelessness. Importantly, the definition includes various forms of precarious housing (i.e., households living in inappropriately sized housing and those who sleep on family and friends’ couches).

Approximately 235,000 Canadians experience unsheltered or emergency sheltered homelessness in any given year;[ii] however, this statistic does not account for those at risk of homelessness or who are living in inadequate or substandard housing. The figure also fails to capture the magnitude of the experience of homelessness. As demonstrated by the Definition of Indigenous Homelessness in Canada,[iii] homelessness is more than being without shelter, especially for Indigenous Peoples where homelessness is the result of a loss of kin, land, culture, and language.

There are three overarching causes of homelessness: structural; systemic; and interpersonal and intrapersonal. Colonization and discrimination are key structural factors impacting homelessness. Indigenous Peoples are greatly overrepresented among individuals experiencing homelessness, making up between 20 to 50 percent of the homeless population, while accounting for only four percent of the overall population.[iv] Likewise, LGBTQ2S+ young people are also overrepresented, making up 25 to 40 percent of the youth homelessness population compared to 5 to 10 percent of the general population.[v] These homelessness experiences are directly tied to discrimination, as Indigenous Peoples often encounter discrimination in the workforce and from potential landlords[vi] and LGBTQ2S+ young people report familial rejection due to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

Systemic causes of homelessness are tied to challenges within public systems. This includes poor discharge planning from hospitals, correctional facilities, and the child welfare system, as well as a lack of support for newcomers, leaving many people exiting these systems at risk of homelessness. For example, compelling evidence from a recent study found that close to 58 percent of young people currently experiencing homelessness have had some kind of involvement with child protective services.

Interpersonal and intrapersonal variables, such as intimate partner violence, family and/or relationship breakdowns, employment loss, and mental health and substance use challenges can also play a role in an individual’s entry into homelessness; however, it is important to recognize that these do not occur in isolation nor are they meant to assign blame. Rather, there is an interplay between factors, such as the lack of affordable housing and discriminatory experiences impacting an individual’s mental and physical health.


II. The making of the affordable housing crisis and precarious housing

“Homelessness prevention requires a systemic response involving all orders of government, including Ministries and Departments not commonly considered in the homelessness agenda.”

Changes in affordable housing policy have had a direct impact on homelessness and housing precarity in Canada. Affordable housing is an umbrella term referring to different approaches to offer low- and moderate-income persons access to affordable and/or below-market rent, such as non-profit and co-op housing, and housing designed for specific populations (i.e., seniors, people with disabilities). There have been four phases[vii] in Canadian social housing policy: early postwar; social housing prime period; devolution and retrenchment; and modest engagement.

Following World War II, the Federal Government amended the National Housing Act (NHA) (previously focused solely on supporting the residential mortgage market) to include social housing. In keeping with broader social welfare initiatives (e.g., universal health care), a limited number of housing units were built for low-income earners. While the investment was small, the emphasis on social well-being set the stage for an enormous expansion in affordable housing in the 1960s that continued into the mid-1980s. During this golden age, affordable housing was positioned as a social right and the Federal Government, in partnership with provinces and territories, invested heavily in social housing, with approximately 20,000 social housing built annually at the height of the prime period.[viii] Most units were built through long-term mortgages where a housing subsidy was tied to a 35-50 year operating agreement with a social housing provider, with the understanding that by the time these agreements expired the building’s mortgage would be paid off and the below-market rent would be sufficient to maintain operating costs. Unfortunately, changes in the policy landscape made this an impossibility.

In the late 1980s social housing production declined. The recession in the early 1990s and international policy changes led the Federal Government to freeze operating agreement rates at their 1990s level and to stop investing in social housing in 1993. In 1996 the Federal Government passed administrative responsibility to the provinces, except in the case of First Nations reserves, thereby eliminating the national housing strategy in Canada and ending over fifty years of investment in housing. It is also recognized as one of the causes of the modern homelessness crisis, along with broader political changes emphasizing small government, reduced social welfare benefits, a growing wealth gap, and a post-industrialist labour market where well-paying, low-skill employment disappeared.

In the early 2000s the Federal Government began to take a renewed interest in affordable housing with programs like the Affordable Housing Initiative (AHI)/Investment in Affordable Housing (IAH) to build and renovate affordable housing units. However, these investments pale in comparison to those made 25 years earlier. In fact, Federal spending on social housing in 2014 was 37 percent less than it was in 1993. If peak development reached over 20,000 new units a year in the early 1980s, by 2006 just over 4,000 units a year were built.[ix] Indeed, the damage from the disinvestment in 1990s seemingly sealed the fate of affordable housing in Canada.

Despite the grim prognosis, recent political developments give cause for cautious optimism. In 2017 the Federal Government introduced a new National Housing Strategy (NHS), including a target to reduce chronic homelessness by 50 percent in ten years, build 100,000 new housing units, and repair 300,000 units. (Chronic homelessness refers to those who have experienced homelessness for six months or longer.) Although there is some hesitancy on the part of housing advocates and policy scholars as to whether these goals can be met with the planned investment scheme, it is undeniable that the Federal Government’s return to investing in housing is a positive step.

The new NHS could have the most significant impact on households in core and extreme core housing need, having pledged to remove 530,000 households from housing need. Core housing need refers to households that spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, while extreme core housing need are those that spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing. The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation defines core housing need on the following criteria:

  1. Adequacy – housing does not require major repairs according to its residents;
  2. Suitability – housing has enough bedrooms for the size and make-up of resident households; and
  3. Affordability – housing is affordable when its shelter costs represent less than 30 percent of before-tax household income.
  4. According to Statistics Canada, close to 13 percent of Canadian households are in core housing need (2016 Consensus). Of these households, approximately two-thirds are renters. Geographic differences in the proportion of households in core housing are apparent, where Atlantic provinces, with the exception of Nova Scotia, and Quebec have seen a decrease in the number of core housing need households. In contrast, Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Alberta have seen increases. With over one-third of households in core housing need, Nunavut has the highest rate in Canada, not surprising given the relationship between housing, land loss, colonist notions of property ownership, and historical and ongoing colonization practices.

Among all households in core housing need, close to 85 percent are below only one of the housing standards, with the vast majority not meeting the affordability standard. Renters are more likely to report being below multiple housing standards. Given that the majority of households struggle with affordability, programs and policies designed to reduce the number of households in core housing must be tied to income-related supports that address poverty.[x]


III. The way forward: Shifting to prevention


It is clear that Canada’s current responses to homelessness and housing precarity are insufficient to solve the homelessness crisis, and indeed, until recently the sector was more focused on the modest goal of managing the problem, rather than implementing long-term, evidence-based strategies for reducing, and ultimately ending, homelessness in Canada. This changed with the At Home/Chez Soi study. The pan-Canadian randomized control trial tested the veracity of the Housing First (HF) model. Unlike the ‘treatment first’ model that places pre-conditions on housing (i.e. maintaining sobriety), HF provides immediate access to housing and wrap-around supports. The study’s overwhelmingly positive results transformed the way we think about homelessness in Canada, no longer accepting that those deeply entrenched in homelessness are destined to remain so.

While the gains made through HF are incredibly valuable, it remains the case that access to services and supports often occur once people become homeless, and thus vulnerable to victimization and trauma. This means that there are few resources for those in core housing need to reduce their vulnerability to becoming homeless. Therefore, it is imperative that we work upstream to support people before they become homeless.

Homelessness prevention requires a systemic response involving all orders of government, including Ministries and Departments not commonly considered in the homelessness agenda. The report A New Direction: A Framework for Homelessness Prevention sets up a typology of homelessness prevention, addressing the range of investments, policies, and interventions necessary to shift our focus to prevention:

  • Structural prevention: Addressing the broad factors that leave people vulnerable to homelessness, with an emphasis on strengthening social inclusion and housing stability. Examples include increasing the affordable housing stock, adequately responding to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, and enshrining homelessness prevention in legislation.
  • Systems prevention: Eliminating barriers to accessing supports and services and ensuring that people exiting public systems (i.e. hospitals, child welfare, correctional facilities) are not discharged into homelessness.
  • Early intervention: Providing rapid responses for those who are at high risk of becoming homeless or for those who have recently become homeless to make certain their experience is brief, such as family mediation, shelter diversion strategies, and accommodation and support for women fleeing violence.
  • Evictions prevention: It is much less harmful and more cost effective to support people to retain their existing housing. Rent supplements, emergency funds, and landlord/tenant mediation can substantially improve a household’s ability to stay in their home.
  • Housing stability: Resources and services allowing people to achieve housing security, particularly for those who have previously experienced homelessness. In this sense, HF is an example of homelessness prevention through the provision of wrap-around supports individuals may need to maintain their housing.

Given the scope and substance of the typology, it is clear that a shift to homeless prevention is a multi-sectoral transformation involving participation from public, private, and community stakeholders. The international evidence is clear that prevention strategies have positive social and economic outcomes.[xi] Pairing HF with homelessness prevention in a coordinated and systematic effort will create the conditions where people can successfully exit homelessness and those at risk of homelessness, such as those in core and extreme core housing need, can avoid the often trauma-inducing experience altogether.


Iv. Conclusion


Canada has not always had a homelessness epidemic and affordable housing shortage, and it does not have to in the future. Various political decisions and policy shifts over the past century have impacted the nature and scope of households who find themselves vulnerable to homelessness. Purposeful, innovative, and bold political decisions and policies are key in our efforts to prevent and ultimately end homelessness in Canada. For those at risk, or who are experiencing homelessness, safe, adequate, and appropriate housing is more than an endeavour to find and maintain a roof over their heads; it is a matter of human dignity. Framing housing as a human right articulates the urgency with which we must act. As Leilani Farha, Executive Director of Canada Without Poverty and the Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing for the UN, writes:

The lived experience of homelessness and inadequate housing challenges the very core of what it means to be human, assaulting dignity and threatening life itself. It is these experiences that make homelessness and inadequate housing violations of human rights and not merely programme failures.


Working simultaneously to support those experiencing chronic homelessness to successfully exit homelessness while ensuring others never become homeless in the first place is evidence based, cost effective, and most importantly, the right thing to do.


DR. ERIN DEJ is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminology at Wilfrid Laurier University. She conducts research on homelessness and social inclusion, prevention, and criminalization practices. Dr. Dej is the co-editor of the upcoming collection Containing Madness: Gender and 'Psy' in Institutional Contexts and author of the upcoming Negotiating Exclusion: Reimagining Homelessness and Mental Health.

DR. JOHN ECKER is the Director of Research & Evaluation at the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. In this role, he provides research and evaluation support to communities across Canada. His personal research interests include homelessness, housing, community mental health, community integration, and issues related to the LGBTQ2 community.


[i] Gaetz, S., Barr, C., Friesen, A., Harris, B., Hill, C., Kovacs-Burns, K., Pauly, B., Pearce, B., Turner, A., & Marsolais, A. (2017). Canadian Definition of Homelessness. Toronto: Canadian Observatory on Homelessness Press.
[ii] Gaetz, S., Gulliver, T., & Richter, T. (2014). The State of Homelessness in Canada 2014. Toronto: The Homeless Hub Press.
[iii] Thistle, J. (2017). Definition of Indigenous Homelessness in Canada. Toronto: Canadian Observatory on Homelessness Press.
[iv] Belanger, Y.D., Awosoga, O., & Weasel Head, G. (2013). “Homelessness, Urban Aboriginal People, and the Need for a National Enumeration.” Aboriginal Policy Studies, 2(2): 4–33.
[v] Abramovich, A. (2013). “No Fixed Address: Young, Queer, and Restless”. In S. Gaetz, B. O’Grady, K. Buccieri, J. Karabanow, & A. Marsolais (Eds.), Youth Homelessness in Canada: Implications for Policy and Practice (pp. 387–403). Toronto: Canadian Homelessness Research Network Press.
[vi] Patrick, C. (2014). Aboriginal Homelessness in Canada: A Literature Review. Toronto: Canadian Homelessness Research Network Press.
[vii] Suttor, G. (2016). Still Renovating: A History of Canadian Social Housing Policy. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
[viii] Hulchanski, J. D., Campsie, P., Chau, S., Hwang, S. W., & Paradis, E. (Eds.) (2009). “Homelessness: What’s in a word?” In Finding Home: Policy Options for Addressing Homelessness in Canada (pp. 1–16). Toronto: Cities Centre, University of Toronto.
[ix] Gaetz, S., Gulliver, T., & Richter, T. (2014). The State of Homelessness in Canada 2014. Toronto: The Homeless Hub Press.
[x] Pomeroy, S. (2017). Why Core Housing Need is a Poor Metric to Measure Outcomes of Canada's National Housing Strategy. Ottawa: Caledon Institute of Social Policy.
[xi] Busch-Geertsema, V., & Fitzpatrick, S. (2008). “Effective Homelessness Prevention? Explaining Reductions in Homelessness in Germany and England.” European Journal of Homelessness 2: 69–95.