A new definition for Canadian homelessness

homeless youth

homeless youthHomelessness in Canada ranges from living on the street to couch surfing to having a home that may be here today and gone tomorrow, according to a new definition of the term by the Canadian Homelessness Research Network, led by York University.

Most people do not choose to be homeless and understanding is key. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Working with community groups, people who have experienced homelessness, national organizations, as well as government representatives, the Canadian Homelessness Research Network created the Canadian Definition of Homelessness in order to give communities, researchers and governments across the country a common definition of what constitutes homelessness. With this common understanding, they will be better able to measure homelessness, identify goals and interventions to address it, and measure which strategies are working, researchers say.

The definition includes, but is not limited to, the following:

Homelessness describes the situation of an individual or family without stable, permanent, appropriate housing, or the immediate prospect, means and ability of acquiring it. It is the result of systemic or societal barriers, a lack of affordable and appropriate housing, the individual/household’s financial, mental, cognitive, behavioural or physical challenges, and/or racism and discrimination. Most people do not choose to be homeless, and the experience is generally negative, unpleasant, stressful and distressing.

“Why do we need a definition of homelessness in Canada? The complexity of the issues underlying homelessness create a feeling that it’s difficult to get a handle on this issue, particularly because many people suffer from similar individual and structural problems, but never become homeless,” says York University Professor Stephen Gaetz, director of the Canadian Homelessness Research Network. “This can also create the illusion that it is therefore difficult to solve.”

headshot of Stephen GaetzStephen Gaetz

Adopting a common definition will help community groups, researchers, governments and others to address homelessness more effectively, Gaetz says.

“You cannot measure the scope of the problem without first knowing who is and is not affected.  This notion is precisely the challenge that faces all strategic initiatives aimed at addressing homelessness, and our lack of clarity about what counts and what does not count gets in the way of creating comprehensive strategies to address homelessness, evaluate outcomes and progress, and share effective practices.”

Canada joins other jurisdictions, including the United States, the European Union, and Australia in having a national definition to assist in developing effective solutions to homelessness.

Key reasons for adopting a Canadian definition include:

  • Sharing a common language about homelessness;
  • Enumerating the problem;
  • Evaluating Outcomes and Progress;
  • Coordinating responses to homelessness;
  • Developing stronger policy responses.

More information about the Canadian Definition of Homelessness and organizations that have endorsed it can be found at the Homeless Hub, the world’s largest research library on homelessness. The hub is a project of the Canadian Homelessness Research Network, led by York University.

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