For International Women’s Day, the CAEH interviewed the two co-chairs of the Women’s National Housing & Homelessness Network and talked about why addressing the women’s homelessness crisis is critical work and how the network hopes to close the gap of inequality.
The Women’s National Housing & Homelessness Network (WNHHN) formed because women’s homelessness is an urgent crisis in Canada, requiring immediate action. Housing insecurity and homelessness for women is largely invisible and women remain profoundly underserved across many systems and services.
Kaitlin Schwan and Arlene Hache are the co-chairs of the WNHHN, which is led by a Steering Committee comprised of women with diverse experiences, lived expertise and contexts.
The Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, a proud collaborative partner of this critical network, caught up with the two co-chairs to talk about the importance of addressing women, girls, and gender diverse people’s experiences of homelessness that remains pervasive in Canada as we look to celebrate this International Women’s Day.
Question: Why did you want to form the WNHHN? How did this idea come together?
Arlene Hache: Formation of the WNHHN was very important to me because up until this point, the diverse perspectives and experiences of women who are unhoused in Canada have not been heard within academia and at the decision-making tables. The WNHHN offers a venue for the voices of lived expertise to be heard and it creates an opportunity to move forward with equity-producing dialogues that bridge the disparities that generate poverty and homelessness.
Kaitlin Schwan: The WNHHN formed in response to the crisis of homelessness and housing need amongst women, girls, and gender diverse peoples. Across Canada, women experience deeper poverty and some of the most severe forms of housing need. The survivors of this across the country have been fighting for policy reform and social change for decades, but we have seen little progress on actually reducing women’s experiences of homelessness and housing precarity. Through the WNHHN, the survivors of housing injustice and their allies are coming together to demand urgent change. With the implementation of the National Housing Strategy and the recognition of housing as a human right in federal legislation, we have a unique opportunity right now to advance housing rights for women, girls, and gender diverse peoples.
Q: Why study women’s homelessness?
AH: The absence of women’s lived expertise of homelessness in research and at the decision-making tables has enabled a myth that women fleeing violence were different than women who were homeless. The false narrative fed into an existing patriarchal framework that declared some women deserving and others not. The victim-blaming and marginalization of women experiencing homelessness particularly impacted Indigenous women, women of colour and 2SLGBTQQIA. Research on women’s homelessness from the diverse perspectives of those with lived expertise is critical to assert solutions that will end their homelessness.
KS: Because women’s homelessness tends to be less visible – or not visible in the same way that men’s homelessness often is – it has been consistently understudied. Women’s unique forms of homelessness are often not included in definitions of homelessness, and thus aren’t captured in data. It creates a cycle of invisibility in research and policy responses. A key preliminary focus for the WNHHN is to accelerate knowledge on women’s homelessness and housing need in Canada – and then to create reports, infographics, briefs, and other resources that people can tangibly use in advocacy. I see research as useful to the extent that it is able to drive change, and we will be seeking ways to do effectively with our research.
Q: Who should be part of this network?
AH: Anyone committed to ending women’s homelessness in Canada is invited to be a part of the network. Although my focus is on ensuring women with lived expertise of homelessness is positioned in a leadership role within the WNHHN, I acknowledge and appreciate the wealth of knowledge researchers and practitioners bring to the table. It is the collective that gives impetus to change. I am looking to ensure the WNHHN is diverse and representative of different communities and regions across the country.
KS: As I imagine it, this a ‘big tent’ network. We want to bring together as many people as possible who are ashamed at the state of homelessness and housing need in Canada. We need a broad coalition of diverse peoples who are dedicated to preventing and ending homelessness for women and gender diverse peoples. Diversity is really, really critical to what we are doing, and we really need to centre the voices of people with lived and living expertise in these efforts – as experts and as rights-holders. If you are reading this, you should join us!
Q: What do you hope to achieve through this network?
AH: I hope the WNHHN will generate systemic change by creating space for the voices of diverse women with lived expertise.
Q: In your mission, you include eliminating homelessness for women, girls and gender diverse people. What was the decision behind that inclusion into the network’s mandate?
KS: So, there are three important points to make about this.
First, as a matter of human rights, homelessness amongst women, girls, and gender diverse people must be ended on an urgent and priority basis. That doesn’t mean reduced. That means ended. We must act with immediacy to do so, and it is this sense of urgency that underpins everything we do.
Second, we need to focus on housing need over a person’s life-course and across generations, including with respect to the effects of historic and ongoing forms of colonialism. This means we are fighting for girls and gender diverse children as well.
Third, we are strongly and firmly inclusive of trans and gender diverse peoples in our network and our advocacy efforts. Trans and gender diverse folks experience some of the biggest structural barriers to accessing housing, and transwomen of colour who are homeless face some of the most profound violence on our streets. We really want to be centering the experiences of gender diverse and 2SLGBTQQIA in our work, given the kinds of systemic violence and exclusion they face in our housing systems, shelter systems, and social services.
Q: What is coming up next for the network?
KS: The Network is lucky to have received a grant through CMHC’s National Housing Strategy (NHS) Research and Planning Fund Initiative to study women’s homelessness and housing need. This research includes a comprehensive literature review, an extensive national survey and consultation, and an Indigenous-led national consultation with Indigenous women, girls, and gender-diverse peoples on their unique experiences of homelessness and housing need.
Based on our literature review, we will soon be releasing a report on the state of homelessness and housing need in Canada for women, girls, and gender diverse peoples. We are hopeful that this research will be a practical advocacy tool for advocates and will help governments accelerate their efforts in this area.