The State of Women’s Housing Need & Homelessness in Canada [2020-06]

Homelessness amongst women, girls and gender diverse peoples is a crisis in Canada – hiding in plain sight. This literature review explores evidence on the unique causes, consequences, and experiences of homelessness and housing precarity for this group.

In all provinces and territories, women, girls, and gender diverse peoples experience some of the most severe forms of housing need. Black women, women of colour, Indigenous women, gender diverse peoples, (dis)abled women, poor women, LGBTQ2S+ peoples, sex workers, incarcerated women, newcomer women, and younger and older women are all disproportionately affected (Van Berkum & Oudshoorn, 2015). Best available estimates of women’s homelessness and housing insecurity are significant undercounts, in part due to the often hidden nature of their homelessness (Maki, 2017). Women are less likely to appear in mainstream shelters, drop in spaces, public spaces, or access other homeless-specific services, and are more likely to rely on relational, precarious, and dangerous supports to survive (Bretherton, 2017). The prominence and greater visibility of men in the homelessness sector has led to a male-centric policy and service environment, creating the conditions for women’s homelessness to remain invisible (Bretherton, 2017). As a result, we are greatly underestimating – and failing to respond to – the immense number of women who are homeless in Canada.

Research also shows that existing support systems fail to transition women and girls out of homelessness quickly (if at all), and in many cases they are left with no option but to return to situations of violence, precarity, and marginalization (Statistics Canada, 2019).

Women and gender diverse peoples face profound violence on the streets and in public systems and are regularly separated from their children because of their housing status and exposure to violence (Van Berkum & Oudshoorn, 2015). Despite this, housing policy rarely focuses on their realities, resulting in an acute lack of women-only, trauma-informed housing services (Fotheringham, Walsh, & Burrowes, 2013; Kirkby & Mettler, 2016). In the absence of access to safe, adequate, and affordable housing, women across Canada are driven into emergency systems that are insufficient and do not meet their needs. In many cases, these emergency systems are overwhelmed with demand and chronically underfunded, and thus regularly turn away women experiencing violence, homelessness, and extreme forms of marginalization (Vecchio, 2019).

In order to better understand these challenges, the Women’s National Housing and Homelessness Network (WNHHN) decided to undertake an extensive scoping review of available evidence on women’s homelessness in Canada. The Canadian Observatory was hired to complete this literature review, guided at each step by the expertise of WNHHN members, including members with lived experience of homelessness.

This review explored evidence on the unique causes, consequences, and experiences of homelessness and housing precarity for women, girls, and gender diverse peoples in Canada. We relied on the expertise of our partners at Keepers of the Circle, an Indigenous Hub operated by the Temiskaming Native Women’s Support Group in Northern Ontario, to analyze the research on Indigenous women’s experiences. The review triangulated multiple data sources, including: scholarly literature, government reports, policy briefs, fact sheets, parliamentary committee proceedings, statistical data, and deputations made to all levels of government (published between 2000 and 2019).

Find the full report, the key findings, and the executive summary here.

Women’s National Housing & Homelessness Network