Select Page

Homelessness in Canada

In the Canadian context, homelessness is the situation of an individual, family or community in which they lack safe, stable, permanent , and appropriate housing. It is the result of systematic or societal barriers, lack of appropriate housing, and the conditions of the individual, family or community. Racism and discrimination can also play a key role in homelessness.

Who experiences homelessness in Canada?

It is difficult to determine the number of people who are homeless in Canada at any given time, because there are different ways that people experience homelessness (i.e., those living on the street, in shelters, with friends and/or family), and there are also very different ways of counting who is experiencing homelessness at any given time. However, according to the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, “the number of Canadians experiencing homelessness on any given night in Canada is estimated to be minimally 35,000 individuals” This number does not include people who experience “hidden homelessness”—people couch surfing or staying with friends or family without anywhere else to go,

A 2018 national point-in-time survey revealed that:

  • Among the 61 communities addressed in the survey, homelessness was more prevalent among men, accounting for almost two-thirds (62%) of the homeless population. Another 36%  of homeless people identified as female, whereas the remaining homeless population was comprised of gender minorities (transgender, non-binary, Two-Spirit, and gender non-conforming people).
  • Adults between the ages of 25-49 comprise 49% of the homeless population who participate in the survey. 22% of homeless people are older adults and an additional 3 per cent are seniors. Youth and dependent children then account for the remaining 26% of the homeless population.
  • Nearly a quarter of homeless youth (21%) identified as LGBTQ+, the highest out of any demographic. Homeless gender minorities were more common among youth, accounting for 4 per cent of homeless minors and adults between the ages of 13-24. (The same research suggests that while 21% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ+, only 11% of adults experiencing homelessness do, and only 6% of homeless seniors).
  • Indigenous people are greatly overrepresented among homeless people, accounting for 30% of those who participated in the survey only 5 per cent of the larger Canadian population. Moreover, Indigenous women and gender minorities face higher rates of homelessness than non-Indigenous women and gender minorities.

Rising rates of homelessness in Canada

The rates of homelessness in Canada are on the rise, with homelessness concentrated in some of Canada’s biggest cities – although there is also homelessness in smaller centres, rural and remote areas, and in the North. For example, the 2020 Northern Housing Report from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation acknowledged the ongoing housing crisis in Yellowknife, Whitehorse, and Iqaluit, where affordable housing is out of reach of many. According to the report: “in Iqaluit, an average two-bedroom rental goes for $2,736 a month, or $33,000 a year.” Affordability is an increasing challenge in other Canadian cities, where the divide between income and housing costs is growing each year.

These rising rates of homelessness are often attributed, at least in part, to cutbacks to social safety nets that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, which broadly reduced public spending programs in the areas of housing and social welfare. Coupled with privatized markets, restrictive zoning regulations, concentrations of wealth, and gentrification, access to affordable housing has significantly declined in favour of more expensive single family detached dwellings and condominiums.

Policies for change

There have been a wide range of policies at the municipal, provincial, and federal level to address homelessness and shortages in affordable housing. The most radical of these strategies calls for a roll back of neoliberal polices and to implement a new national policy involving more government engagement in the provision of affordable housing (rather than market-based interventions). Other strategies focus on “Housing First,” a policy that seek to provide housing before any other steps are taken.

Recently, the Government of Canada launched Reaching Home, a community-based program aiming to prevent and reduce homelessness by directly funding at-risk communities. Unlike previous approaches, Reaching Home substantively acknowledges Indigenous rights by administering economic, social, and housing programs through culturally appropriate services.

Additional Resources

Contributors: Brad Garlie, Elise Harewood Bricker, Herleen Devgan, Kelsey Hanlon, Jason Lau, Shamsuddin Nasir