Canada must have a more inclusive definition of homelessness for women and gender-diverse people

March 8, 2023

Silhouette image of a woman looking into the distance at a city.

This International Women’s Day, we are called to reflect on the barriers and biases that impede women from fully realizing their human rights; and importantly, to reflect on what we can do to break down these barriers and biases.

The right to adequate housing is a human right. However, women in Canada are often impeded from fully realizing this right due to policies and programs that do not consider their specific needs and circumstances. Last June, the National Indigenous Housing Network and Women’s National Housing & Homelessness Network filed two Human Rights Claims to review the systemic denial of the equal right to housing of women and gender-diverse people, which spotlight the inherently systemic violations of the right to housing.

Critically, the Canadian government has relied on a narrow definition of homelessness, which excludes women’s experiences of gender-based violence and hidden homelessness. Definitions of “homelessness” and “chronic homelessness” used in government policy do not reflect the distinct ways women, girls, women-led families, Two-Spirit, and gender-diverse people experience homelessness. Definitions tend to be Eurocentric and fail to account for Indigenous ways of understanding and experiencing homelessness.

To fully realize the right to adequate housing, a broader definition of homelessness must be adopted. 

That is why the Canadian Centre for Housing Rights (CCHR), the Women’s National Housing and Homelessness Network (WNHHN) and the National Indigenous Housing Network (NIHN) are calling on the federal government to expand its definition of homelessness to include the experiences of women and gender-diverse people, centering ways in which Indigenous women, girls, Two-Spirit, and gender-diverse people define their homelessness. Our collective efforts to end homelessness must be inclusive of all experiences across Canada.

Support this call by sending a letter to the federal government.

How do women experience homelessness differently?

Despite common perceptions that it is primarily men who experience homelessness, almost half of the people experiencing homelessness in Canada are women, girls and gender diverse people.

However, while housing and homelessness supports are generally framed in gender-neutral terms, women have unique needs and experiences in housing instability and homelessness. Women experience homelessness differently for two main reasons: (1) they frequently have different reasons for becoming homeless; and (2) they navigate homelessness differently. These experiences are tied to gender, and other group identities like race, ethnicity, disability, immigration status, social and economic status and gender identity etc. Based on these identities, women face multiple forms of marginalization.   

In the context of inherent Indigenous rights, colonial policies and mechanisms attempt to displace Indigenous women, girls, Two-Spirit, and gender-diverse people. The lack of action on the Calls to Justice from the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Report and Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report has created a failure to provide safe, adequate, and culturally appropriate housing. The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) mentions the need for safe and secure housing more than 400 times.

Pathways to homelessness for women 

Women commonly become vulnerable to homelessness due to poverty, lower wages, intimate partner violence, sexual abuse, addiction issues, mental and physical health challenges, and issues around childcare.  

The Pan-Canadian Women’s Housing and Homelessness Survey identifies that women disproportionately experience poverty and financial instability. Women in Ontario on average live on income that is 28% lower than the average income for men, are over-represented in minimum wage and part-time jobs, and assume unequal responsibilities in housework and childcare. 

As a result, they face greater challenges finding adequate and affordable housing, leading many women to seek out housing that is unsafe, inadequate or unaffordable, and increasing their vulnerability to homelessness. CCHR has reported that more than a quarter of women-led households in Canada are in core housing need, while 90% of families using emergency shelters are headed by single women. This situation is made worse by the increased discrimination that women – in particular single mothers/parents, those receiving social assistance, those who are racialized, newcomers, Indigenous, or with a disability – face in accessing housing. During the COVID-19 pandemic, women were disproportionately impacted by income and job loss due to their overrepresentation in part-time employment and in the sectors most heavily impacted by the pandemic. The pandemic exacerbated the housing needs of women, who were less likely to have savings, and put them at a higher risk of experiencing homelessness. Racialized women experienced additional impacts as they earn approximately 58 cents for every dollar earned by non-racialized men and are more likely to work in lower-paying occupations.  

Indigenous women, in particular, are overrepresented amongst women who are homeless, and are 15 times more likely to use a homeless shelter than non-Indigenous women. The 2019 MMIWG Report highlights that Indigenous women and girls are 12 times more likely to be murdered or missing than any other group of women in Canada and are 16 times more likely to be murdered or missing than white women. A lack of Indigenous-led housing programs leads to unsafe living conditions, inadequate housing, unaffordability, and child apprehension.

Moreover, women account for 79% of people experiencing violence by an intimate partner, while women who are Indigenous, racialized, with a disability, refugees, or identify as LGBTQ2S+ face disproportionately high rates of violence. Research shows that experiencing violence, in particular intimate partner violence, is a key reason that women and their dependents lose access to stable housing or experience homelessness. A report by the Canadian Women’s Foundation found that women who leave their partners and become single parents are five times more likely to live in poverty, while women leaving violence encounter other systemic and structural challenges to accessing stable housing, such as being turned away from emergency shelters due to capacity issues, and discrimination from landlords and property managers who refuse to rent to them based on their gender and other identifying characteristics. 

These challenges increase women’s risk of experiencing homelessness. This cycle is illustrated by the Pan-Canadian Women’s Housing and Homelessness Survey, which found that 47% of women surveyed reported a breakup as the reason for losing access to housing, the most commonly reported reason for women losing their housing, and 75.2% reported being survivors of abuse and trauma.

The Canadian Observatory on Homelessness also found that discriminatory practices around social assistance, housing support and child welfare present additional barriers for low-income women to access housing, and interventions from child services are shown to increase risks of homelessness for both mothers and their children. This is in part due to social assistance systems cutting entitlements for mothers whose children enter the child welfare system, a response that further challenges their ability to retain stable and adequate housing. 

Navigating homelessness 

Just as women have different pathways to homelessness, they also navigate homelessness differently.  

The Pan-Canadian Women’s Housing and Homelessness Survey has found a severe lack of gender-specific supportive, transitional and permanent affordable housing to meet the needs of women who are at risk of losing their housing. Critically, as of 2019, 68% of shelter beds were co-ed or dedicated to men, compared to 13% dedicated to women, while many women avoid co-ed shelters due to the increased potential for violence in these spaces. This shortage is especially severe for Indigenous women, with data showing that 70% of northern reserves do not have dedicated spaces for women escaping violence. 

Moreover, women are exposed to different risks when experiencing homelessness. Research underscores the cyclical nature of violence and homelessness for women. Just as violence is a pathway to homelessness, women are much more likely than men to experience violence and exploitation due to being homeless. The same survey shows that 37.5 % of young women and 41.3% of trans and non-binary people who are homeless experience sexual assault, compared to just 8.2% of men.    

With fewer formal housing and homelessness supports available, women more frequently rely on informal, precarious, and at times dangerous supports to stabilize their housing. These can include strategies like couch-surfing with friends and family, staying in substandard or unsafe accommodation, staying in violent or exploitative relationships, and exchanging sex for shelter. These situations represent forms of “hidden homelessness” that exist on the margins of the formal homelessness support and shelter system.

Why do definitions matter? 

In 2017, the Canadian government introduced the National Housing Strategy (NHS) to address Canada’s affordable housing and homelessness crisis. The NHS introduced several programs to prevent and respond to homelessness but did not adopt the broad definition of homelessness recognized by the United Nations (UN). The UN definition of homelessness recognizes that homelessness is interrelated with poverty and includes people living in temporary accommodation and inadequate housing without access to security of tenure or basic services. This broad definition encompasses the types of hidden homelessness often experienced by women, including those who are couch surfing, incarcerated, hospitalized, being sexually exploited, exiting foster care, or those living in unsafe or unstable housing.

Most definitions fail to account for the unique structural and systemic oppressions that shape homelessness for Indigenous women, girls, gender-diverse peoples including: genocidal violence, intergenerational trauma, institutional betrayal, racism and discrimination, sexual violence and homicide, and criminalization.

Concerningly, these experiences are not captured under the NHS’s narrow definition of homelessness, which focuses on more visible forms of chronic homelessness. The NHS defines homelessness as a “situation in which someone does not have a permanent address, or stable, permanent or appropriate housing, or the means to acquire it.”  As a result, research and data gathering approaches, as well as program design and funding under the NHS, have focused on chronic or visible homelessness. For example, one of the ways that the Canadian government has determined homelessness statistics is by focusing on shelter capacity and occupancy. However, it is estimated that 7% of women in Canada experience hidden homelessness at some point in their lives. Therefore, using shelter occupancy to measure the rates of homelessness excludes large numbers of women experiencing hidden homelessness, for whom both unsheltered homelessness and shelter use pose threats to their safety and an increased risk of child apprehension for women who have children in their care. This systemic undercounting makes it challenging to estimate the number of women experiencing homelessness in Canada. 

Homelessness, chronic homelessness, housing need, and affordability definitions in current federal policy do not reflect the experiences of housing precarity or homelessness, nor the depth of poverty women and gender-diverse people live in, which means it cannot possibly hope to address these issues at a foundational level.

The lack of national data on hidden homelessness has led to the exclusion of key populations of women to receive support from homelessness programs and has produced inadequate policy responses to address their needs. These gaps in responses to women’s emergency housing needs have contributed to the significant shortage in shelters for women, as mentioned above. In addition, programs under the NHS, such as Reaching Home, which is considered one of the main funding streams dedicated to ending homelessness, have also failed to account for the specific factors that make women vulnerable to homelessness, such as lower wages, lack of affordable childcare and being the primary caretakers in the family, as well as gender-based violence.

The Canadian government must change its definition of homelessness to include the experiences of women and gender-diverse people, and center Indigenous ways of understanding and experiencing homelessness, to effectively address their needs and advance the right to housing.

Tell the federal government: Canada’s homelessness definition must be inclusive of women and gender-diverse people.

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