Degree of women’s homelessness underestimated, study finds

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The full extent of women’s homelessness is severely underestimated, a new study finds. Commissioned by the charitable organization, Sistering, and funded by Health Canada and the Status of Women Canada, Common Occurrence: The Impact of Homelessness on Women’s Health highlights homelessness as a significant women’s health issue that seriously impacts women’s emotional, mental, spiritual and physical health.

Building on the realization that women’s homelessness has not been adequately represented in other studies, and that the continuum of homelessness for women has not been fully understood, researchers sought to incorporate both “hidden” and “visible” homelessness in their report:

Visible homelessness includes women who stay in emergency hostels and shelters and those who sleep rough in places considered unfit for human habitation, such as parks and ravines, doorways, vehicles and abandoned buildings.

Hidden homelessness includes women who are temporarily staying with friends or family or who bare staying with a person only in order to obtain shelter, and those living in households where they are the subject of family conflict or violence. Hidden homelessness also includes situations where women are paying so much of their income for housing that they cannot afford the other necessities of life, such as food; those who are at risk of eviction; and those living in illegal or physically unsafe buildings, or in overcrowded households.

"Homelessness has become a women’s health issue," says Nancy Blades, the Director of Programming at Sistering. As advocates for the rights of homeless women, Sistering wanted to educate key health care stakeholders about the lived experiences of homeless women in Canada’s health care system, and the connection to women’s poverty. "We wanted to quantify women’s experiences to uncover how women’s homelessness is often hidden," says Blades.

Using a gender-based analysis, researchers interviewed more than 125 homeless women in Toronto on their health status, and gathered input from 38 representatives of agencies in Toronto’s health, settlement, social services and emergency housing sectors. “We interviewed women in 14 different languages, and of various ages, ethnicities, sexual orientation, disabilities, women with children, street workers, immigrants, women with psychological/emotional/mental illnesses, and more” says Blade. Of the more than 125 women interviewed, 93% of the women reported emotional and mental health issues as a result of their living situations.

In the study, researchers also address women’s homeless-specific health concerns, including the barriers homeless women face in the current systems of support. The study finds that social and medical services are not fully responsive to homeless women’s health care issues and needs, particularly because there has been little understanding of the continuum of women’s homelessness.

Common Occurrence Research Action Report: The Impact of Homelessness on Women’s Health is available from Sistering ($20 each, plus $5 shipping). Phone (416) 926-9762 ext. 227 or visit for details.

To help improve the conditions of women’s visible and hidden homelessness, we need to:

  • Call upon provincial and federal governments to implement a National Housing Strategy.
  • Call for an increase to income supports for women and children to halt the spiral from hidden to visible homelessness and increased poverty.
  • Expand violence against women programs to provide support for victims of family abuse.
  • Improve safety and access to emergency shelters.
  • Increase collaboration between health care institutions and community based agencies.
  • Increase involvement of homeless women in the health care sector, such as on committees and outreach programs.
  • Enhance community-based services to address the concerns of homeless women.
  • Network between community-based women’s agencies to prevent isolation and loneliness of women experiencing hidden homelessness, and to protect women from falling into the spiral of visible homelessness.
  • Increase government funding of disability support programs to enable visible and hidden homeless women and children to meet their basic nutritional requirements.

Adapted from Common Occurrence: The Impact of Homelessness on Women’s Health(Sistering, 2002).