Sociologist Rob Rosenthal wrote an excellent paper (Rosenthal, 2000) exploring the simplistic perspectives in the public discourse of homeless persons as being either deserving or undeserving of aid. This is based on whether homeless persons are conceptualized as victims of their own irresponsibility, simply lacking in capacity, or victims of circumstances beyond their control. When we think about the causes of homelessness, it is helpful to hold the agency/structure dialectic, as proposed by sociologist Anthony Giddens (Giddens, 1984), in mind. Giddens defines ‘agency’ as being able to act freely, unconstrained by external forces, and ‘structure’ as the social institutions and norms that influence human relationships. Therefore, in looking at any individual case, we need to recognize that both personal agency and social structures play a role in one’s current housing status.
At the 7th International Conference on Urban Health, Jim Frankish broke down the agency/structure dialectic further in looking specifically at homelessness, and proposed four sets of factors that contribute to homelessness: societal factors, organizational factors, interpersonal factors, and intrapersonal factors. Societal factors include: access to social assistance, funding for shelters and other resources, social assistance rates, availability of affordable housing, crime and drug policies, and housing policies. Organizational factors include: agency availability, resource availability, location of services, design of service provision, and availability of service providers. Interpersonal factors include: family issues, cultural issues, social network problems, and interactions with providers. Lastly, intrapersonal factors include: biological problems, lifestyle choices, knowledge, addictions, criminal activity and beliefs. These categories are similar to the findings of the Mayor’s Homelessness Action Task Force (Golden, Currie, Greaves & Latimer, 1999) out of Toronto, Ontario. The Task Force defined the four essential causes of homelessness in Canada to be increased poverty, a lack of affordable housing, mental health care deinstitutionalization, and social factors such as violence, abuse, and social network alienation.
Of the causes identified, much of the recent focus has been on public policy in the housing realm. Various organizations have promoted educational campaigns suggesting that homelessness is a housing issue. This intuitively makes sense, as extremely comprehensive supportive, supported and subsidized housing programs would hypothetically assist all individuals regardless of their personal constellation of agency and structure challenges. It has been found that having stable housing increases the likelihood of leaving social assistance, finding employment, leads to better outcomes for children, and decreases morbidity and mortality (OMSSA, 2005). And, the increase in homelessness in Canada over the last few decades has been termed by David Hulchanski as a ‘dehousing process’, suggesting that the dismantling of national and provincial affordable housing programs has caused the current crisis of homelessness. Therefore, ‘housing first’ models of assistance have been suggested, meaning that to assist homeless persons, we must first provide them with stable housing.
Although housing is an important public policy realm that can point to both causes of and solutions to homelessness, I believe that the push to refine public policies should not be exclusively limited to housing. Shapcott, in a submission to the UN special rapporteur on adequate housing (2005a), provides an excellent synopsis of the step-by-step dismantling of the national and provincial housing programs, but also recommends increasing social assistance, enhancing social services, and increasing dollars for outreach and support (Shapcott, 2005b). Similarly, the “Pathways into Homelessness” Report mentioned above found that 45% of primary causes of homelessness were financial, but also found 26.7% to be related to interpersonal conflict and abuse, 17.7% due to drug and alcohol use, and 3.7% due to mental illness. Therefore, using the factors that contribute to homelessness proposed by Jim Frankish, it can be suggested that in addition to housing policies, we need to consider health policies, social assistance policies, and other relevant public policies.
So, coming full circle, let us again consider what the root cause/s of homelessness is/are in Canada. Both inter/intrapersonal factors and public policy play a major role in causing homelessness. However, I would suggest that statistics from nations such as Norway (with a homelessness percentage estimated at 0.11) demonstrate that with strong enough public policies, almost all constellations of inter and intrapersonal factors can be accounted for, and homelessness can be averted. Therefore, I would suggest that the ultimate root cause of homelessness in Canada is problematic public policies. More comprehensive health, social and housing policies would lead to provision of adequate shelter for all Canadians, regardless of health status, employment status, or income level.