Shelter Use in Canada

Although the vision in London and across Canada is to end homelessness, emergency shelters continue to play a key role within the system as it stands. They serve as a ‘sure thing’, a landing spot for people as they encounter crisis, or a short (or unfortunately longish) term solution for those with more complex challenges. When options run out, people are able to access shelter on short notice and be assured of having their basic needs met for at least a brief period of time. In fact, the future ideal state still includes emergency shelters as part of a comprehensive system. This is because people will still encounter crises and will need a place to go to connect with the system and be supported into new permanent housing. However, what will change will be the length of stay in shelters and the services received, with very short stays and intensive services to ensure quick exit to appropriate housing.

(Side note: Because new people will continue to be de-housed for a variety of reasons, the terminology within the sector for ending homelessness is ‘functional zero’. This is a state when everyone who is de-housed is continually re-housed. More information on functional zero can be found at:

So, what is happening in emergency shelters is important information to understand how we are doing on ending homelessness. To this end, the Government of Canada has recently released their updated national shelter stats (covering up to 2014), and I believe there are a few important points worth mentioning:

1. Fewer people are accessing emergency shelters in Canada

Number of shelter usersThis is obviously good news. This means that to some degree we are doing a better job at preventing homelessness in the first place, or keeping people housed once they have been re-housed. The majority of these shelter users stay one night, meaning that we are also doing a good job in helping people find permanent housing options.

2. However, those who are staying in shelter are staying longer

Shelter length of stayThis means that counter to the efforts of Housing First, meaning rapid rehousing of those who use shelter the most, chronicity is increasing. I would be curious to see whether there are regional trends to these numbers and if communities with extremely low or negative vacancy rates (such as Toronto and Vancouver) are skewing the numbers. However, this speaks clearly to a greater need for affordable housing options to support people in exiting shelter.

3. Leading to pressures on shelter capactiy

Shelter occupany rates

This creates a challenge for government: Do you build more shelters to respond to occupancy demands at the same time that you are trying to provide more permanent housing options to reduce shelter use? Interestingly the same parallel exists in housing for frail seniors, where there is demand for more long-term care facilities while the ideal is that more people are supported to age at home. Do you respond to the immediate need if it may counter the long-term ideal state? My response would be to specify the focus and look community-to-community and population-to-population. For example, a community may have overall sufficient shelter capacity by the stats, but insufficient for a particular population such as LGBTQ or single women. Or, a whole province might average sufficient capacity yet one urban area might have a significant need. Therefore, I think we hold the vision of reducing emergency shelters in general, while perhaps increasing capacity in specific areas for specific populations.

In conclusion, I see both good news and bad news in the stats. However, I think the message is clear that we still need more affordable, permanent, and safe housing options to move people from shelter to home, and the rights supports to make this successful.

Stuck in Shelter

Good information can be very helpful in terms of addressing health and social problems.  The federal government provides an optional information system to be used by shelters called HIFIS (London is in the process of adopting it).  By having a common information system used across many municipalities, there is an opportunity to note particular trends. The National Shelter Study does just this, looking at trends in shelter usage from 2005-2009.

There are a number of interesting stats here, but I found stats about length of stay to be most telling about the challenges we are facing in in this sector:

National Shelter StudyWhat we note here is that although the majority of individuals still continue to have only one stay in shelter over any given year, they are staying in shelter longer.  This is very consistent with our concerns that there are limited affordable housing options to help move people out of shelter.  Previous research shows that 0% of people who are homeless would choose homelessness as their ideal housing status (C. Forchuk), therefore these individuals are staying in shelter for lack of housing.

As I have discussed previously, shelter is a much more expensive option administratively than moving people into affordable housing.  These stats show how we need to continue to put pressure on federal, provincial, and municipal governments to expedite new affordable housing (with supports).


Ontario, Falling Behind on Poverty Reduction

The Government of Ontario has released it’s fourth report of it’s Poverty Reduction Strategy.  By committing to particular indicators, it makes it easy to track the progress (or not) on this strategy.  I took the time to compare this report with the 2010 Report.

A number of new programs have come into place with promise to improve our standing on child and family poverty, including:

  • Full implementation of all-day kindergarten, which it is worth reminding ourselves is primarily a poverty reduction strategy, rather than an educational one; and it’s effective.
  • Enhanced access to child care programs.
  • After school programming.
  • Targeted programs for at risk communities, schools, and youth

At the same time, there have been decisions that have halted or reversed progress:

  • Social assistance increases at rates lower than inflation
  • Delay in child benefit increases
  • Decreased spending on the full envelope of homelessness programs

I quickly noticed two things: much of the achievements in the 2012 report were the same as those listed in 2010, and anticipated rates of people to be served in programs introduced in the 2010 report are much higher than the real rates reported in 2014.  And then there are the graphs:

Opportunity Wheel

It took me a while to find the gains for 2011-12, but they are there, in the one indicator for educational progress.  There is no doubt about it, the educational measures are on a strong and consistent upward trend.  But the most important image in my opinion is the measure of income:

Wage Comparator

You will notice that although the exact dollar value of the family earnings is the same for 2010 and 2012, the percentage of the poverty line (represented hear as the LIM) has actually decreased.  This is because the LIM has increased with inflation, where real wages have stayed the same (or decreased in ‘real’ dollars).  This is a clear sign of Ontario falling behind on our commitment to poverty reduction.

Going forward, we need to hold the line on what were very incredible poverty reduction goals and strategies laid out by the Ontario Government, and not relinquish them at budget time under the auspices of austerity.  I’m all for reducing deficits, but not at the cost of increasing poverty.  Let’s renew our commitments and see the rate of children experiencing poverty in Ontario decreased by 25%.



Housing and Homelessness – London

A friend recently asked for some of the basics on housing and homelessness in London, here’s what I sent him:

Our best estimate is that on any given night in London, 2000 are homeless.  This represents 600 in shelter and transitional housing, about 20 sleeping rough, many women trading sex for a place to stay, those in hospital and jail with no-fixed-address, and the hidden 1000 or so who are couch surfing.  This, of course, depends on the definition of homelessness used.  An important point is that although 2000 are homeless on any night, for most it is a transitional experience, and a recent project in London identified just over 10,000 Londoners who were homeless at least 1 night of the year.

In terms of housing, there are just over 3000 families on the wait-list, representing approximately 4300 individuals.  The wait-list is 1-2 years for those who are high need (example: children, and women fleeing abuse), and 8.3 years for the general wait-list.  The current Housing Strategy is to create 1000 new units over the next 5 years, although the fiscal plan only predicts 450 over the next 3 years, and the new plan that takes into consideration the cut predicts just 115 new units over the next 2 years.  The thing about housing is that the City doesn’t actually build, but provides funds to private or non-profit entities that approach the City to build.  With the money currently in the reserve fund the City will match provincial and federal dollars granted to builders over the next 2 years, but will be unable to do so in years 3-5 of the plan.  It’s currently looking unlikely that we will achieve even half the goal of 1000 units.  This means that with the continued increase of those on OW and ODSP, the wait-list is likely to grow, creating a bubble of homeless people who are homeless simply because they cannot afford housing.  Over the past five years we added 873 units, bringing the total units (representing various delivery models from rent-subsidy to public housing) to 8,060.  As the new units are built by independent developers and organizations, they can target particular groups, such as recent buildings for seniors, First Nations people, and adults with disabilities.  The City does not mandate this, only that they units be at a maximum of 80% of market rent, and preferably 70%.

In terms of causes of homelessness, other than the obvious lack of housing, complicating factors are that about 2/3rds are experiencing a mental illness, and 1/3 are experiencing an addiction.  These individuals often require not just affordable housing, but affordable housing with supports.  This is challenging, as no level of government or government department is currently focusing on supporting people in their home, outside of the Ministry of Health program for seniors, Aging at Home.

By the Numbers

A recent report on homelessness in Denmark demonstrates that those experiencing homelessness face many of the same challenges in other countries as they do in Canada.  I have mentioned before the people experiencing homelessness have some of the highest morbidity rates and lowest age of mortality in the developed world.  In the Danish study (length of time not given), 17% of the homeless men died, making life expectancy 22 years shorter than the national average.  Similar to my stats of 2/3 mental illness and 1/3 addictions in Canada, in the Danish study 62% of men had a mental illness and a higher rate of 49% of men were experiencing an addiction.

Creating system-level change requires political will.  Political will follows public will.  Hopefully numbers such as these will help provide motivation for the general public in London and Canada to say that homelessness is no longer acceptable in our society, and we will work to provide safe and supportive housing for all.

Stories in Numbers

There is nothing like an ill child to bring perspective on life. I have been away helping care for #2 son, who I’m pleased to report is doing well now. Until things get settled again, I just wanted to share some statistics from my presentation in the previous post in case you haven’t watched it. I know that stories are more effective than numbers, but I believe there are also a lot of stories in these numbers.

  • Over 70% of homeless youth have experienced abuse in the home.
  • Upwards of 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTTQ
  • Most youth who become homeless have used little or no substances.
  • Approximately 1/3 of people experiencing homelessness use substances.
  • This number is closer to 2/3 for those who are ‘chronically’ homeless.
  • 2/3 experience a lifetime diagnosis of mental illness, 50% after becoming homeless.
  • 47% of those who are homeless and experiencing a mental illness are not receiving formal care.
  • 55% of those experiencing homelessness have a serious health condition.
  • The average age of death for a homeless person in Canada is 44.5 years.
  • Less than 10% of social housing in London is supportive housing.
  • There is a 9 year waiting list for social housing in London.
  • Approximately 2000 people are homeless in London on any given night.
  • Homelessness costs the city around $10 million annually.
  • Social assistance rates are less than half of any measure of poverty in Canada.
  • In a local study, 0% of homeless people identified homelessness as their ideal housing condition.
  • The U.S. has 4x the rate of homelessness as Canada, Norway has half.

Statistics Update

I have come across a number of new statistics on homelessness in Canada that may be of interest.

There are over 19,000 shelter beds in Canada (Library of Parliament), which means my estimate of 30-50,000 persons is probably pretty close.

Homeless women in Canada aged 18-44 are 10x more likely to die than women of the general population (Cheung & Hwang, 2004), and only have a 60% chance of living to age 75 (Hwang, et al., 2009).

Somewhere in the range of 10% of people experiencing homelessness in Canada are older adults (aged 50, 55, or 65+ depending on the study; McDonald, Dergal, & Cleghorn, 2007).

Over 70% of homeless youth in Toronto have experienced some form of abuse in the home (Youth Without Shelter).

One study found that 1 in every 5 incarcerated people in Toronto were homeless prior to being jailed (John Howard Society).

In London, Ontario, $9.2M is allocated annually to addressing homelessness in our city (London Community Plan on Homelessness).

How Many Are Homeless?

In Canada, survey data from the late 1980’s estimated that over 100,000 Canadians were homeless (McLaughlin, 1987).  However, at the same time an estimate of 130,000 to 250,000 began to circulate based on a belief that such surveys underestimated the true numbers (Begin, Casavant, Miller Chenier & Dupuis, 1999).  This number is likely quite inflated, as we do have regional statistics to extrapolate from.  Homelessness counts have been done in many regions, and tend to vastly underestimate true numbers, but have found 2100 homeless persons in Vancouver, British Columbia (2002), 3100 homeless persons in Edmonton, Alberta (2008), and 5,000 homeless persons in Toronto, Ontario (2008).  These numbers coincide roughly with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM, 2008) report that found 14,000 regular shelter beds in 21 participating Canadian municipalities.  Recognizing that shelter users are only one group of people who experience homelessness, estimates around 30,000-50,000 or 0.1-0.2% of the population are likely most accurate.  However, this number is far less than the 1.5 million Canadians who are at risk of losing housing (Laird, 2007).

In terms of London, Ontario, statistics are again difficult to obtain, but there is some data to work from.  A study in 2003 found that shelters in London served approximately 4000 persons in a year (De Bono, 2003).  This points to the transitional nature of homelessness, as in a review of shelters in London in 2005, it was found that there are 641 total shelter beds.  Therefore, each shelter bed is occupied by 6-7 different individuals through the year.  Again, individuals who stay in shelter only represent a portion of the homeless population.  There are 18 food banks and 33 agencies that provide meals within the city (London Free Press, 2009), although these service all persons living in poverty, not just homeless persons.  As well, 12% of London families are considered to be low-income (OrgCode Consulting Inc, 2010).

Despite challenges in obtaining statistics, it is not necessary to have exact numbers on homelessness to know that this is a major social concern that needs to be addressed.  Human Resources and Social Development Canada on reviewing the available statistics on homelessness suggested that obtaining these numbers would be useful, but still recognized the importance of the problem and in 2007 granted $269.6 million over two years to address homelessness.  What is more important than the absolute numbers is that it has been found that the incidence of homelessness is increasing, and has been increasing consistently since the post-depression era (Timmer, Eitzen & Talley, 1994).  The most conclusive data to support that this is an increasing problem comes from shelter usage statistics, which have increased consistently and continuously across North America (Wright, 2000).  Official statistics are important, but we also must not ignore personal anecdotes coming from service agencies and providers highlighting the increase in homelessness.  This is the impetus that is causing national, provincial and local governments to take action.