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From Homes to Shelters to Blankets

Share International 1999

Homelessness in Canada
From housing to shelters to blankets
by Connie Hargrave

A report about increasing homelessness in Canada, which like other countries, has cut funding for housing to reduce its deficit and save taxpayer money.


Nanaimo, Canada
Over the past two decades homeless people are increasingly evident on the streets in Canada. Who are they? Newspaper articles occasionally profile a homeless person who once had a job and savings like anyone else. Such stories point out that the homeless can be “normal folks” who have fallen through the safety net and these articles easily blend in with reports about layoffs and job losses in general. Yet in spite of a public recognition of high unemployment, on the street the homeless remain an embarrassment and continue to be seen as transients, derelicts, “dirty” and generally not worthy of one’s attention. As one woman passer-by in Victoria, BC, put it: “They just come here for the mild weather, you know; we have been told not to give anything to them.”

Only a handful of attempts to count the homeless have been made at both local and national levels in Canada. These attempts have failed for a lack of a consistent definition of who the homeless are, as well as the elusiveness of the population. Absolute homelessness refers to people living on the streets with no physical shelter, while relative homelessness refers to those who live in spaces that do not meet basic health and safety standards. The broad definition of homelessness includes those who live in sub-standard housing, or in overcrowded or undesirable conditions. For instance, a woman may live with an abusive man as the lesser of two evils, thereby avoiding being on the streets.

Social action agencies reported in the late 1980s that the number of homeless Canadians was between 100,000 and 250,000, out of a total population of 28 million. In January 1987 the Canadian Council on Social Development conducted a one-night count of persons using shelters across the country, yielding the following statistics: 7,751 people sought shelter that night, of whom 61 per cent were men, 27 per cent women, and 12 per cent children. At that time, Canada had 472 facilities capable of sheltering some 14,000 individuals a night.

Of this “snap-shot” sample taken in 1987, 45 per cent were actually employed, underscoring the fact that not all the homeless are without resources, but that many live in conditions of poverty and underemployment; 50 per cent were receiving financial social assistance of some kind; 33 per cent fit into the category of alcohol abusers; 20 per cent were former psychiatric patients; 15 per cent could be classed as drug abusers and 3 per cent were physically handicapped. Almost 10 per cent had been evicted from where they lived.

The evidence provided by hostels, emergency shelters, advocacy and government reports indicates the following trends:

– The number of homeless people began to spiral upward in the late 1980s’ and has persisted into the 1990s.
– A lack of affordable housing in major cities is a consistent factor associated with the rise in the homeless population.
– The composition of the homeless population has changed from being “derelict” older men to predominantly young men, with teenagers, women and children becoming more prominent.
– By 1990, the average age of the street men in this country was 29. These men could not be written off as hopeless derelicts or as lazy, non-contributing members of our society, because at least 80 per cent of them were able-bodied people who did not abuse alcohol or drugs or have serious mental problems.
– There is an increase in homeless subgroups which require not only decent housing but a variety of social support, medical and counselling services1.
– Native Indians, refugees and ethnic minorities are over-represented among the homeless.
– Perceptions, for instance the traditional Canadian stereotype of the homeless being “bums” and “drunken Indians”, are changing.

Structural causes

What causes homelessness? There is a strong consensus in the Canadian literature that the causes of homelessness are structural2. Continuously high unemployment rates have particularly affected youth. The weakening of family ties, coupled with family violence, causes crisis situations for many women, forcing them to seek temporary shelter with their children. In addition, large mental institutions have been closed down, leaving many ex-mental patients on the streets to fend for themselves. Lack of stability and shelter is often devastating, and it in turn leads to further problems. Combine the above with the economic pressures of rising costs of housing and the cancellation of government-supported housing programs, and you have an intractable problem.

“No one needs to go hungry in Canada because we have ‘soup kitchens’ and food banks,” says Al Mitchell, Emergency Services Manager of the Lookout Emergency Aid Society in Vancouver, “but finding a decent place to live is quite another story,” he says, pulling a letter from a file in his office. “This letter came from the Federal Minister of Housing, proudly stating how cutting funding for housing is saving the taxpayer money and reducing the deficit. Well, they are just deferring the costs until later — there is an HIV epidemic in this area because of drug use, and a host of other costly problems. Our experience is that when decent housing is provided for people their lives tend to stabilize, while those who remain in shelters have a tendency to use drugs and alcohol and so forth.”

According to Al Mitchell, there is a chronic lack of housing because of speculation in the last 25 years. The high cost of producing new units along with the demolition of downtown ‘cheap’ hotels is causing low-income singles to be excluded. While the core of virtually every city in Canada has hotels which are used for residential purposes, they are relatively expensive ($3.25 per square foot as compared to an apartment at $1 per square foot) and they are inadequate, usually lacking washroom and cooking facilities. These SORs or “single occupancy rooms” have in the past been the last resort as ‘homes’ for many lower-income singles who are either on income assistance or working for low wages.

“Band-aid” solution

Churches such as Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army generally operate temporary shelters, while many private agencies as well as the emergency wards of hospitals also play a key role. Such shelters provide at best a “band-aid” solution, and even they report turning away unprecedented numbers of people in the winter. In Canada’s largest city, Toronto, the total number of hostel admissions has gone up since 1991, through repeat usage, and because more people are staying longer3. This suggests an entrenched state of homelessness for many of the thousands of people in the Toronto shelter system. While the majority of homeless people using Toronto shelters are male, 35 per cent of users are women, with two-parent families on the increase. Special shelters exist for teenagers, but they generally only allow teens to stay for two weeks, and then they must move on.

What is it like to be homeless in Canada? Michael Nolin says that he spent time living in the back alleys of Vancouver. “I would go to sleep at sundown and wake up in the dark at 5am and then go to MacDonald’s for a coffee. I would bum money on the streets. I had been mentally sick and have been in a mental hospital, which was OK.

When on the streets I got cold and sick and then would go into a hospital for a few months. Since then I moved into a hotel, where I got stabbed in the face. Drug dealers had moved into my building, and hookers (prostitutes) would come to my door, and say: ‘Here is some cocaine, could you leave for a few hours?’ If you did not do as asked, they made life difficult. Here in this shelter I feel safe.”

Comments from street people, gathered by Sheila Baxter in her book, Under the Viaduct:

– Homelessness is having money for booze but none for a room, when I was drunk.
– Homelessness is knowing you can be evicted any time.
– Homelessness is always having to move on.
– Homelessness is having rent increases that force you out.
– Homelessness is when you come out of jail and you don’t know where you belong.
– Homelessness is not knowing where to go.


Authors King and Carley suggest that living in a shelter, while little is done to address the lack of low-cost housing, is often demoralizing. “Many people have said that shelters are a true example of Christian charity. People who say this have never visited a shelter. It isn’t wonderful to sleep in a cot in a makeshift dormitory; to line up with strangers for a shower and have to undress in front of them; to be afraid to fall asleep while listening to coughing, crying, and angry muttering around you; to have to leave in the morning, no matter what the weather, even if you are sick. Above all, it isn’t wonderful to be alone.”4

People who use the temporary shelters or live in downtown hotels do not have an acceptable address for applying for jobs. They are socially isolated and are often embarrassed to let others know where they live.

Al Mitchell maintains that solutions do exist, pointing to a social housing unit which was recently built across the street from The Lookout, which was designated for people who have been chronically at risk for being homeless. “The building is the first of its kind here in British Columbia, and that is what is needed. There are 67 units, and it is a good start, but only a drop in the bucket.” He then pointed to a photo: “That is Alley Man, there, who is watching the concrete being poured for the new building. He will never live there because, although he has not had a roof over his head for three years, he is too drunk and too belligerent to get in. Only the ‘nice’ homeless will qualify.”

The Federal Government has in the past financed and built non-profit and co-operative housing, representing 6 per cent of Canada’s housing stock. In 1994, in the name of budget constraints, it cancelled funding for new developments, leaving public housing in the domain of individual provinces. Since then, the Province of British Columbia, with its Social Democratic Government, is the only one to have initiated accommodation for the homeless or for those who are at risk.

Innovative housing projects were built throughout the country during the times of more generous government policies, and they include transitional housing for young people, non-profit social housing for single parents and low-income families. Many of these projects were built using interest-free or low-interest loans provided by the Federal Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. For instance, Ottawa’s “Maison de Chambres” is designed for singles and has 55 rooms which have a kitchenette, a common room, a laundry facility and common bathrooms, costing $205 per month, or $120 less than what a one-room hotel costs.

While there have been a variety of projects and programs addressing homelessness throughout Canada, it continues to be a crisis without an audience, being largely a problem that remains hidden in doorways, abandoned buildings, alleyways, shelters and cheap hotels.

The homeless themselves gave recommendations through a Homeless-People Outreach Group in Toronto in 1989. One of their most important recommendations was to give the homeless a human face, by, for instance, setting up forums to educate the public as well as politicians. They also said that the homeless themselves should be employed in such endeavours.

* Quote from a member of ‘End Legislative Poverty’, a national lobby group, describing the trend in homelessness in Canada.

1. O’Reilly-Fleming: Down and Out in Canada, 1993
2. Novac, Brown, Bourbonnais, 1996
3. Advisory Committee on Homeless and Socially Isolated Persons, 1996
4. King and Carley 1988


From the April 1999 issue of Share International.