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Hidden homelessness: We need to think about women and their families

The stereotypical image of a bundled women asleep on a sidewalk is what comes to mind for most Canadians, when homelessness is mentioned. However, that is not always the case, the reality is more varied and complex. With no roof over their heads and no door to lock safely behind them, women are at a greater risk of physical, emotional and psychological harm. In Canada, women’s hidden homelessness is largely present. Women with precarious living situations are highly vulnerable. The number of young women that are homeless is alarming which is why a shelter is a safe space for them.

Women’s homelessness is often hidden and largely underestimated

Women’s homelessness is rarely visible. We often think that it looks like someone sleeping on the street, but homelessness can also be couch surfing with friends, trading sex for housing, or living in a tiny, overcrowded apartment. All these describe the hidden homelessness that makes it difficult to accurately estimate the number of women and families experiencing homelessness in Canada.

In 2019, the YWCA partnered with local image maker Michal Pasco. Together they embarked on a project to shine light on the faces of homelessness. The ‘YW Faces’ objective helped to bring awareness to hidden homelessness.

Women are constantly at risk when homeless, thus they tend to hide more. Their focus on safety first leads to the undercounting of women’s homelessness.

“This undercounting is not unique to the Canadian context: global trends demonstrate that women have been under-represented in research on homelessness, in part due to the hidden nature of their homelessness.” – The State of Women’s Housing Need & Homelessness in Canada

By using inefficient measurement strategies and largely undercounting women, we also fail to identify the level of need for infrastructure that support women and families in poverty. Effective research can better inform policies and interventions that give women access to the resources they need.

Intergenerational homelessness starts and stops with mothers

Canadian evidence shows that adult homelessness often has its roots in childhood experiences of housing instability and violence.

“I thought it was the way life was…there was no safe house, there was no shelter that a wife or women could run to and be protected. So, many women, including my mother — they stood there, and they took it…and I took on that generational trait. You were just supposed to take it.”

There is less attention on the childhood experiences that are intertwined with the experience of the child’s primary caregiver, which in many cases is a child’s mother.

We must take action to break the cycle and address the housing challenges faced by many Canadian women. Addressing the housing needs of women, particularly the families headed by single women, is a critical aspect to solving chronic and intergenerational homelessness.

When we fail to address the needs of single mothers and their children with a lack of resources, we create a condition for their children to continue the cycle of homelessness.

The reality is that you can’t truly help a family if you’re not helping the whole who leads it. We know that generational poverty starts and ends with mothers. This is why safe environments and critical services are needed to help entire families out of poverty.

Public systems disproportionately drive women to poverty and homelessness

Women’s homelessness can be seen as interpersonal violence but can also be rooted in structural violence. Structural violence stems from social structures and systems put in place which are driving women to poverty and homelessness.

An example of such public system failures includes contradictory polices across systems (between social assistance, child welfare, and social housing) that make it difficult for women to qualify for income or housing supports.

Most social assistance systems cut entitlements for a mother as soon as her child is apprehended by child welfare, putting her at risk of losing her housing. This dramatically affects her ability to have her children returned to her care. Similarly, housing providers often consider a woman over-housed if she loses custody of her children. Nor will they consider the mother’s family size for future housing entitlement if her children are not currently in her care. Recognizing the harmful cycle in this one area could have a dramatic impact on homelessness amongst women.

Last year, YWCA Niagara Region served more than 500 women and 230 children with emergency shelter or transitional housing programs. Consistently over-capacity and frequently spread thin, the YWCA Niagara Region advocates for policies that prioritize women’s well-being and stability. Help us advocate for a better life for women in Niagara.

 

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