Recently I wrote a column about recent research that says owning a home makes families happier and healthier and in most cases, more financially secure. Canada’s homeownership rate is about 70 per cent, one of the highest rates in the world.
But a major study recently shed some light on people at the other extreme - those who have no place to live.
The numbers, from The State of Homelessness in Canada 2013, are sobering.
"Homelessness is a problem larger than the number of people counted on the street or in shelters," says the report.
The report authors estimate that at least 200,000 Canadians access homeless emergency shelters or sleep outside in a given year. Another recent poll estimated that as many as 1.3 million Canadians have experienced homelessness or "extremely insecure housing" at some point during the last five years.
On any given night, at least 30,000 Canadians are homeless, the authors say. This includes:
This number doesn’t include people who are "couch surfing" - staying with friends or family on a temporary basis because they have nowhere else to live.
The report says most people who become homeless are able to find a home within a month, and 29 per cent only stay in an emergency shelter for one night. Of the approximately 200,000 people who become homeless during the year, about 6,000 to 22,000 move in and out of homelessness, and 4,000 to 8,000 are "chronic homeless" cases, says the report.
The document was created by the Canadian Homelessness Research Network for the Homeless Hub, a web-based research library. The co-authors are Stephen Gaetz, Jesse Donaldson, Tim Richter and Tanya Gulliver.
"Individuals and families who wind up homeless may not share much in common with each other, aside from the fact that they are extremely vulnerable and lack adequate housing, income and the necessary supports to ensure they stay housed," says the report. "The causes of homelessness reflect an intricate interplay between structural factors (poverty, lack of affordable housing), systems failures (people being discharged from mental health facilities, corrections or child protection services into homelessness) and individual circumstances (family conflict and violence, mental health and addictions). Homelessness is usually the cumulative impact of these factors."
Single adult males between the ages of 25 and 55 account for almost half of the homeless population, says a federal government study. About 20 per cent of the homeless are young people. The report says First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples are overrepresented in the homeless population.
It suggests that homelessness costs the Canadian economy $7.05 billion per year, including the cost of emergency shelters, social services, health care and corrections facilities. There has been no improvement in the number of people who use shelters on an annual basis, and there is evidence that family homelessness is a growing problem.
The report says that all levels of government must work together to co-ordinate resources. "Homelessness is a ‘fusion’ policy issue… responses must involve health, corrections and justice, housing, education and child welfare, for instance. This may seem obvious, but it is one of the biggest challenges in dealing with the issue…"
It says the problem cannot be solved unless the supply of affordable housing is increased. The authors urge the federal government to develop a national housing strategy that would include direct federal investment, tax incentives for developers to create market rental housing, a low-income housing tax credit program and support for alternative financing instruments such as community bonds.
A "Housing First" policy needs to be embraced, the report says, with the underlying principal that people are better able to move forward with their lives if they have a place to live.
Priority should also be given to eliminating chronic and episodic homelessness. "Though small in numbers, these individuals utilize a large portion of emergency services across the homeless sector," say the authors. "Cost savings aside, addressing the needs of the most vulnerable is the only way to end homelessness in a community." Ending Aboriginal homelessness should also be a priority as part of the overall strategy, the report urges.
Finally, it says that more comprehensive data should be compiled along with performance monitoring, analysis and research.
"Currently many Canadians are at risk of homelessness because of the high cost (and unavailability) of housing, inadequate incomes and family violence," say the authors. "The good news is that if we understand the causes of homelessness, we can do something about it."
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