A growing number of families with children are using homeless shelters in Canada, and are among the "invisible homeless" who bunk down with friends or use services for victims of violence, according to advocacy group Raising the Roof.

The report "Putting an End to Child and Family Homelessness," by Raising the Roof, examined numbers provided by shelters and family support services across the country over a three-year period. As well, 103 staff at shelter agencies and 36 families experiencing homelessness were interviewed.

There has been a 50 per cent increase in the number of families with children using shelters in the past decade, to around 9,459 in 2009, according to an independent study. Raising the Roof estimates that figure is now higher.

"Yet, when most people think about homelessness in Canada, they picture an older, single man sitting on a street corner," said the report, released Monday.  

On any given night, about 35,000 people across Canada are without permanent shelter, the study found. But families, particularly those with a lone female parent, stayed longer in shelters, an average of 50 days.

Many Canadians precariously housed

That figure does not include people in shelters for victims of violence, which have an additional 7,000 beds across Canada.

Raising the Roof estimates about 3.1 million Canadians are precariously housed, either because they live with family and friends, or are a few dollars away from being evicted.

"There are millions of Canadians, including individuals, children and their families, who are paying more than 50 per cent of their income on housing costs," the report said.

Raising the Roof calls on the federal and provincial governments to develop and fund a national homelessness and housing strategy.

It dates the disappearance of housing opportunities to the federal decision in the 1990s to stop funding construction of affordable housing.

It also calls on governments at every level to address the root causes of homelessness, including poverty, family violence and discrimination.

Risks for young children

Only a handful of affordable units are built in Canada annually at a time when many of the available jobs are part time or at minimum wage, says the group, which works to raise awareness about housing issues.

Children who grow up without stable housing are at higher risk of doing poorly in school or being exposed to trauma or abuse, the group reported. They also are more likely to end up homeless themselves later in life.

Raising the Roof also documents a high incidence of mental illness among children who have been homeless. It cites a study indicating 24 to 40 per cent of school-aged children who have been homeless report depression, anxiety or disruptive behavior disorders.

"The loss of security that children should gain from having permanence of place results in negative mental health consequences," the report concludes.

 The advocacy group calls for a national strategy to address child mental health, including a "one family, one case" approach in which community agencies coordinate with one another to serve families at risk of homelessness.