Despite sporadic success in addressing homelessness in Canada, little progress has been made toward a permanent cross-country solution, says a national report into the extent of the problem.

The report's initial numbers tell a grim story. Among the report's findings:

  • At least 200,000 Canadians experience homelessness in any given year.
  • At least 150,000 Canadians a year use a homeless shelter at some point.
  • At least 30,000 Canadians are homeless on any given night.
  • At least 50,000 Canadians are part of the "hidden homeless" on any given night — staying with friends or relatives on a temporary basis as they have nowhere else to go.

Those numbers come from the Canadian Homelessness Research Network (CHRN) and the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, the groups behind what they call the first extensive national report card on homelessness.

Their look at the state of homelessness in Canada found that annual shelter use did not change substantially from 2005 to 2009, while the average stay grew longer.

As a result, the report's authors say, it's time the country shifted its focus from crisis management — from things like emergency shelter beds and soup kitchens — to more permanent solutions.

"When we start warehousing people, it can lead to a sense of complacency: well, it isn't the best situation to be sleeping with 50 other strangers in a room but it's a best we can do," said Stephen Gaetz, the lead author of the report and the director of the CHRN.

"The reality is it isn't the best we can do at all."

Who is homeless?

While the homeless can come from any group, the report found that certain populations are over-represented:

  • Single adult males between the ages of 25 and 55 account for almost half the homeless population (47.5 per cent).
  • Youth between the ages of 16 and 24 account for 20 per cent of the homeless. An estimated 25 to 40 per cent of homeless youth are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual or transgender.
  • Aboriginal people are over-represented among the homeless in almost every urban centre in Canada, with the over-representation growing dramatically the more one heads west and north.

Degrees of homelessness

Of the 200,000 people who use homeless shelters in an average year, relatively few (4,000 to 8,000) are what the report's authors call "chronically homeless." 

A slightly higher number (6,000 to 22,000) are what they call "episodic homeless." These are people who move into and out of homeless shelters multiple times over several years. 

The vast majority of Canada's homeless (176,000 to 188,000) are "transitional homeless" — individuals and families who enter the shelter system for a short stay of generally less than a month. For them, homelessness is usually a one-time event.  

Even though the first two groups make up less than 15 per cent of the homeless population, they account for more than half of the resources of the homelessness system. 

Of the 30,000 homeless on any given night:

  • 2,880 are unsheltered (on the street).
  • 14,400 are staying in emergency shelters.
  • 7,350 are staying in violence-against-women shelters.
  • 4,464 are in hospitals, jails or other interim facilities. 
Source: The State of Homelessness in Canada, 2013

People can be pushed into homelessness by a variety of factors — the loss of a job, mental illness, addictions, family violence or abuse, extreme poverty.  

Changes in the economy and in the housing market are adding to homelessness.

The supply of affordable housing has not kept pace with the needs of the population. There has also been a decline in the amount of affordable rental housing in many cities. Combine that with declining incomes and a widespread reduction in social benefits for low-income Canadians, and you get a population that has to spend a greater percentage of its income on housing. 

High rents and low vacancy rates put more pressure on the 30 per cent of Canadians who rent.

Many more are increasingly vulnerable. The report estimates that as many as 1.5 million of Canada's 12 million households — those with low incomes and who are paying more than 30 per cent of their income on housing — are at risk of becoming homeless.

Suggestions for change

Despite few signs of a broad national turnaround in the homelessness problem, the authors see signs of progress. 

They highlight the federal government's Homelessness Partnering Strategy, which was renewed this past March for another five years. The strategy supports research on homelessness and works with communities in tackling the problem.

But the report's authors say this investment has not been accompanied by "a robust and ongoing investment in affordable housing," which they say is a crucial part of solving the problem.

Vicky Stergiopoulos, the psychiatrist-in-chief at St. Michael's Hospital in downtown Toronto, called the report "long overdue" and said she was hopeful its recommendation would be heeded.

"The question will be, how do we transform programs and services that were designed to manage homelessness to programs and services that will end homelessness? That will require a phenomenal amount of leadership and community engagement," she told CBC News.

"We have the evidence base of what we need to do. What we lack is perhaps the know-how of how to do this transformation."

Several initiatives at the provincial and municipal level appear to be making progress. For instance, the province of Alberta announced a 10-year plan to end homelessness in 2008. Since then, the province has seen a 16 per cent reduction in homelessness. 

Bright spots at municipal, provincial levels

Various homeless strategies have also been adopted in New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Ontario and Quebec. 

Annual cost of homelessness to the economy:

$7.05 billion — includes costs of running shelters, providing social services, health care and corrections
Source: The State of Homelessness in Canada, 2013

The efforts of some of Canada's big cities were also singled out. 

Vancouver, through a series of public and private partnerships, has achieved a 66 per cent reduction in street homelessness. 

Calgary and Edmonton have also seen significant reductions in homelessness. Edmonton's 30 per cent reduction in homelessness since 2008 leads the country's big cities.

Homeward Trust Edmonton says that more than 2,300 people have found homes through the housing first program since 2009. Of those, more than 80 per cent "successfully remain in housing," the organization's website says.

Bruce Reith, who works with Edmonton's Hope Mission, said shelters are still seeing long lineups, despite the success of the housing first program.

"I would have thought the numbers in the shelters would have gone down," Reith said. "But we've found that the numbers have gone up. But a lot of people are moving into Edmonton, and a lot of them, a percentage would be transient."

Toronto has also seen a marked decline in street homelessness, with the city's outreach programs getting much of the credit.

The report calls for all communities to develop clear plans to end homelessness, with the support of other levels of government. It also calls for a dramatic increase in the supply of affordable housing.

"Canada will not see a sustained reduction in homelessness without a significant increase in the affordable housing supply," the authors write.

Priority attention should be paid to the needs of the aboriginal homeless. It also calls for a focus on reducing the ranks of the chronically or frequently homeless. "No one should be homeless and using emergency services for any longer than a few weeks."

The authors also say the country needs better data collection so communities can determine the full extent of their homelessness problem and take steps to address it effectively.

"Those decisions on how to respond to homelessness need to be based on evidence, what we know that works, not just on ideas we pull out of the air," Gaetz said.

"We have to move forward with solid evidence on how to do this. We've got some of that evidence but now it's time to scale it up across the country and get everybody pulling in the right direction."                                         

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story, written from an advance copy of the report, said that Edmonton had seen a 42 per cent reduction in homelessness since 2008. A subsequent copy of the report stated that Edmonton had achieved a 30 per cent reduction in homelessness since 2008.
    Jun 19, 2013 6:06 PM ET
With files from The Canadian Press