Homelessness is an extreme form of poverty and social exclusion. Simply put, people who are homeless do not have safe, affordable, appropriate, permanent housing to which they can return whenever they choose. This includes people who are absolutely homeless and are living on the streets or in shelters, the ‘hidden homeless’ who are staying with friends, relatives or in institutional settings, and those ‘at risk’ of homelessness, whose current economic and housing situation is precarious.
Homelessness can result from a combination of individual and structural factors. Individual factors that can contribute to homelessness include: deep poverty, mental or physical illness, addiction, trauma, abuse, lack of education and a lack of supportive relationships.
Structural causes of homelessness are social and economic in nature, and are often outside the control of the individual or family concerned. These may include:
- a lack of affordable housing;
- housing policies;
- the structure and administration of government support; and
- wider policy developments, such as the closure of psychiatric hospitals.
Homelessness in Canada
In 2007, the Government of Canada estimated 150,000 Canadians were homeless (in shelters or sleeping outside). Other estimates place the number as high as 300,000.
There are several factors behind the rise of homelessness in Canada.
Federal government budget cuts in the 1990s resulted in deep cuts to provincial transfer payments and the cancellation of the federal affordable housing program. Faced with federal transfer payments cuts and their own debt problems, the provinces were forced to make sweeping cuts in everything from health care to welfare that impacted vulnerable Canadians. Provincial reductions in welfare payments not only reduced the amount of support but the number of people that could receive it.
At the same time, investments in affordable housing stopped or slowed in many provinces. With insufficient affordable housing in the system, vulnerable Canadians were forced to rely on the private rental market. Incomes afforded by social assistance were, and still are, nowhere near sufficient to support private rental housing.
Further compounding these problems are public systems like child welfare, health care and corrections that can inadvertently contribute to homelessness either by directly discharging people into homelessness or allowing people to fall through the gaps.
Another major contributing factor to homelessness in Canada is deep poverty, substandard housing and the lingering impact of residential schools on Aboriginal communities. Aboriginal people are dramatically over-represented among homeless populations in Canadian cities.
The Cost of Homelessness
Research in Canada and the United States has shown conclusively that homelessness is cheaper to fix than it is to ignore.
In a 2005 study comparing four Canadian cities, Steve Pomeroy estimated that it costs $66,000 to $120,000 per person per year for institutional responses to homelessness (e.g. prison, psychiatric hospitals) as compared with $13,000 to $18,000 for supportive housing.
In a 2006 study, Simon Fraser University estimated it costs $55,000 per person per year to leave someone homeless in British Columbia versus a housing and support cost of $37,000.
In 2007, the Calgary Homeless Foundation estimated that, on average, chronically homeless people consume $134,000 per person per year. Under their 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness, the Foundation has been able to provide housing and support to chronically homeless people for $10,000 to $25,000 per person per year.