What is homelessness?
Homelessness is an extreme form of poverty characterized by the instability of housing and the inadequacy of income, health care supports and social supports.
This definition includes people who are absolutely homeless (those living on the streets); shelter dwellers (people staying temporarily in emergency shelters or hostels); the “hidden homeless” (people staying temporarily with friends or family), and others who are described as under housed or “at risk” of homelessness.
Homeless persons are defined as people “sleeping rough” or using public or private shelters. People sleeping rough, which means in the street, in public places are those forming the core population of the “homeless”. Those sleeping in shelters or other institutions are considered part of this population.
Another, not obvious side of the problem is “concealed homelessness.” Under this category fall all people living with family members or friends because they cannot afford shelter themselves. Without this privately offered housing opportunity, they would be living in the street or be sheltered by an institution. The extent of this phenomenon is extremely difficult to calculate.
At Risk of Homelessness
In addition to absolute and concealed homelessness, some people are at risk of losing their housing and can be categorized as people at “risk of homelessness.”
Isn’t homelessness a mental health and substance use problem?
The relationship between substance use and homelessness is complex. While rates of substance use are disproportionately high among the homeless population, homelessness cannot be explained by substance use alone. The use of substances alone does not necessarily signal addiction, nor a harmful or problematic lifestyle.
In addition, many people who are addicted to substances never become homeless, but an individual that is experiencing housing instability, often due to low income, has an increased risk of losing their housing if they use substances. Once on the streets, an individual with substance use issues has little chance of getting housing as they face insurmountable barriers to obtaining health care, including substance use treatment services and recovery supports.
People with poor mental health are more susceptible to the three main factors that can lead to homelessness: poverty, disaffiliation, and personal vulnerability. Because they often lack the capacity to sustain employment, they have little income. Delusional thinking may lead them to withdraw from friends, family and other people. This loss of support leaves them fewer coping resources in times of trouble.
Mental illness can also impair a person’s ability to be resilient and resourceful; it can cloud thinking and impair judgment. For all these reasons, people with mental illness are at greater risk of becoming homeless. Homelessness, in turn, amplifies poor mental health. The stress of being homeless may exacerbate previous mental illness and encourage anxiety, fear, depression, sleeplessness and substance use.
Who are people who are homeless?
No one is safe from experiencing homelessness. No one dreams of being homeless. No one chooses to be homeless, and it can happen to anyone.
In most cases, it is the intersection of structural factors, personal histories and individual characteristics that lead to homelessness. Structural factors include: the growing gap between the rich and the poor, the decrease in affordable housing supply; the decrease in services, supports and social assistance; and, discrimination and racism.
Personal histories and individual characteristics include: catastrophic events; loss of employment; family break up; onset of mental and/or other debilitating illnesses; substance use by oneself or family members; a history of abuse; and, involvement in the foster care system.
Every community in Canada has homeless people, even if you don’t see them on the street. Most homeless people don’t live on the street.
Why are people homeless?
Most times, crisis forces people to the street – not choice. Possible factors include:
- The cycle of poverty and/or inherited generational poverty
- Unemployment or underemployment
- Undiagnosed or untreated mental illness
- Physical or cognitive disability
- Physical of sexual abuse
- Lack of education
- Drug and alcohol addictions
- Recent immigration
- Criminal record
- Fallen on hard times
Don’t some people choose to be homeless?
The overwhelming majority of homeless people want to get off the street and into stable adequate housing. A homeless existence is characterized by demeaning environments, numerous threats to survival, and the most abject poverty affecting every aspect of daily existence.
Among the general population, many people make bad choices at some time in their lives. For those on the economic margin, a bad choice can result in becoming unhoused. The alienation and deprivations that accompany life on the streets do not help people learn new and better choices. Sometimes, the effect is just the opposite.
Most people will never know what it is like to try to survive without housing. Homeless persons and the people who assist them list the following as just some of the realities:
- the constant search for temporary shelter;
- inadequate food and nutrition;
- shortage of appropriate clothing;
- harassment and physical assault;
- inadequate medical services;
- negative or low self-esteem;
- social isolation;
- development of mental health and/or substance abuse problems; and
- poor prospects for employment and appropriate permanent housing.
(Source: The Homeless Hub)