Canada's homeless population is somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 people, while another 1.7 million residents struggle with "housing affordability issues," says an analysis of the latest research on shelter.

In a report released Tuesday from the Calgary-based Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership, journalist and author Gordon Laird argues homelessness is now chronic and is quickly becoming one of the country's defining social issues. He makes a case for a national housing strategy and a more robust income security program.

Citing statistics from a wide range of organizations, Laird says poverty is the leading cause of homelessness in Canada, not substance abuse or mental illness. "Roughly half of all Canadians live in fear of poverty, and 49 per cent polled believe they might be poverty stricken if they missed one or two paycheques," he writes.

Laird isa media fellow with the foundation, whichworks to influence ethical actions in politics, business, government and the community.

In his report, Lairdwrites that street counts of homeless people have increased dramatically— "Calgary's homeless population grew 740 per cent between 1994 and 2006."

Hecites government numbers showing a cost of up to $6 billion a year to service a "core" homeless population of 150,000. That cost includes health care, criminal justice, social services and emergency shelter costs.

"The high cost of homelessness in Canada results from the role of homelessness as a proven multiplier of societal ills: malnutrition, unemployment, addiction, mental illness, family strife and lack of income security are all intensified when an individual or household becomes homeless," he writes.

The report criticizes Canada for trying to contain the growth of homelessness with temporary measures such as shelters and other crisis-based services. It cites studiesthat show the cost of emergency shelters is much greater than the cost of creating affordable housing and implementing rent supplements.

Laird says the former national affordable housing strategy, discontinued in 1993, created 650,000 units providing housing for more than two million Canadians. While new investments in affordable housing were made in 2005, there is no national strategy and so no guarantee the money will be well-spent, he says.

"And without a national strategy on housing and homelessness, there is much risk for repeating past mistakes and spending blindly on short-term fixes and emergency responses," writes Laird.