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History of homeless in Canada

A deeper look into a complex situation

How it started 

Around 60 years ago, there was a liberation of incarcerated individuals with mental health disorders. You see, during this time, people with severe mental health problems were housed in long-term psychiatric facilities and were seen as violent and dangerous: a risk to other citizens. In the mid-1970s, there were massive closures of inpatient beds and entire psychiatric hospitals: this was called deinstitutionalization. The goal was for people to live within communities and access treatment through hospitals and outpatient programs.


Moving towards Community health

 For thousands of people, this move towards community health was fruitful: people with mental illnesses were found to be resourceful and able to live independently. For others with more serious disorders, they started appearing on the streets without housing, and jails became the new psychiatric institutions. Homelessness increased and became visible to the public. Since then, homelessness has continued to rise, without an end in sight if we consider the current housing market and state of mental health care. 


Homelessness today

It is estimated that over 235,000 people experience homelessness in Canada and that anywhere between 25 to 35 000 individuals experience homelessness on a nightly basis (Strobel et al., 2021). Additionally, it is estimated that anywhere between 450,000 and 900,000 people across Canada are the “hidden” homeless. The hidden homeless include individuals who may live with friends and family and have no direct access to stable, guaranteed housing (Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, 2017). In summary, there are close to one million Canadians who have limited access or zero access to a safe, consistent place to sleep and live. To put this into perspective, Ottawa’s current population sits at around 1 million people.


How do people become homeless?

Individuals become homeless through different pathways. Each person on the street or staying in emergency shelters has a unique story. Homelessness is typically viewed as a result of mental health or addiction problems. The reality is homeless people have unique narratives and the stereotyped image of a street person does not represent the breadth and variety of individuals who face homelessness.


People of all ages, genders, sexual orientations, cultures, races, and even socioeconomic statuses are represented in homeless populations. What remains true is that some populations are overly represented, such as Indigenous people. As well, there is a growing concern of increasing homelessness in people over the age of 55 and under the age of 18. 

Affordable housing

Unfortunately, the need for affordable housing is being challenged by the current housing market, creating a larger affordability gap between market value and what people can afford. This means that housing has become less affordable for many people. Ontario has the second-highest core housing need in Canada: this means that people are spending more than 30% of their after-tax income on rent or mortgage payments. From 2011 to 2018, the number of households meeting this criteria rose from 616,900 to 735,000 (Statistics Canada, 2018). The factors? People’s income is not keeping up with market increases of homes and rents. 


Canada has a plan of eradicating homelessness by the year 2025. The evidence in our current cities shows that we are far from reaching this goal, although steps are being made to increase supportive housing and social housing. Each province has its own strategy to decrease homelessness by increasing funding for subsidized housing, rent-geared-to-income, and working with landlords for rent assistance. The need for these services is greater than the supply and funding. 


Mental health and Addictions

In addition, mental health and addiction issues can be a precursor for homelessness. People’s symptoms and lack of functioning can render them unable to work and pay rent, leading to evictions. Without proper support, these people may find themselves living with friends and family for some time. Often, this can be too much for even the most supportive family and friends, and people can end up living in shelters and on the streets. It’s estimated that 25-50% of homeless people in Canada suffer from mental illness and that mental illness is the leading cause of homelessness in Canada (Canadian Institute of Health Information, 2007). In a study looking at psychiatric ward discharges, it was found that 10.5% of people being released were discharged into homelessness (Forchuk, 2006).



Homelessness is a national key issue. It is a costly and detrimental situation that impacts potentially millions of Canadians daily. Basic needs of food, water, and shelter are taken for granted by many. When people run out of options and start making decisions to pay rent or feed their families, it becomes a fight for their life and health. Homeless people have lower life expectancies and increased health problems. The causes of homelessness in Canada center around the lack of affordable housing and mental health issues. Although viewed as policy issues, perhaps it is time to consider them as human rights issues.


About the Author: 

Victoria Howarth is one of our Registered Psychotherapists (Qualifying) and a therapist under supervision at CMAP Health. She is completing the last year of her Master’s Degree in Counselling Psychology at Yorkville University. Victoria holds a Master’s Certificate in Addictions and Mental Health from Durham College and has spent the last 5 years working the frontlines of the opioid epidemic. She has experience coaching and counselling adults with substance use disorders with an emphasis on harm reduction.To find out more about Victoria you can review her profile.





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