Statistics Canada counted 12,565 Canadians staying in shelters during the 2021 Census of Population. This point-in-time count, however, does not capture the true extent of homelessness in Canada.
Although a minority of Canadians experience homelessness at a certain point in their life, some groups are at an elevated risk, including Indigenous people, sexual minorities, and Black women.
We looked at the characteristics of individuals who had previously experienced homelessness prior to the COVID-19 pandemic by asking current housing decision makers if they had ever found themselves without a home.
Hidden homelessness far more prevalent than unsheltered homelessness
Unsheltered homelessness is defined as having lived in a homeless shelter, on the street, or in a park, in a makeshift shelter, or in an abandoned building.
In 2018, about 3% of Canadians responsible for housing decisions within their households had experienced unsheltered homelessness in the past, with no significant difference between women and men.
However, more than one in seven people (15%) who make housing decisions for their household had experienced hidden homelessness, defined as having to temporarily live with family or friends, or anywhere else, because they had nowhere else to live.
Indigenous people, sexual minorities and Black women have among the highest rates of homelessness
Higher rates of homelessness among the Indigenous population are well documented and are associated with systemic barriers to employment and education, racial discrimination in the housing market, and the intergenerational effects of colonization and residential school experiences.
In 2018, among Indigenous people responsible for housing decisions within their households, about 12% of off-reserve First Nations people, 10% of Inuit and 6% of Métis said that they had experienced unsheltered homelessness in the past. The corresponding proportion for non-Indigenous people was 2%.
Sexual minorities were also at greater risk of unsheltered homelessness. In particular, among women responsible for housing decisions within their household, almost 8% of those with minority sexual orientations had experienced unsheltered homelessness in the past, compared with 2% of their heterosexual counterparts. Several factors could explain these results, including increased rates of family violence, discrimination, and victimization.
Overall, Canadians belonging to population groups designated as visible minorities (2%) were slightly less likely to have experienced homelessness than those who were not a visible minority (3%).
Among specific groups of Canadians responsible for housing decisions within their households, South Asian (1%) and Arab (1%) Canadians were significantly less at risk of having experienced unsheltered homelessness. In contrast, 5% of the Black population had experienced homelessness in the past, a proportion that increased to 6% among Black women.
Canadians responsible for housing decisions within their households who reside in Nunavut (14%) were the most likely to have experienced unsheltered homelessness in the past. Residents of Yukon (8%) and the Northwest Territories (6%) also had higher rates of past homelessness. Conversely, those living in Quebec (1%) had the lowest rate.
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