A profile of families in the emergency family homeless shelter system in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

Author:Sylvestre, John


Compared to the wealth of research on single homeless adults, there is little known about homeless families. This paper describes a study of 75 homeless families in Ottawa, Ontario, conducted in 2012-2013. This sample of homeless families includes a large number of newcomer families, including immigrants and refugees. Participants are poor and unemployed, but many are educated, and there is little evidence of alcohol or substance abuse. Nonetheless, participants report poor mental health and high levels of family stress. Whereas newcomer families tended to be larger and include more two-parent families than did Canadian-born families, there were no differences in the physical and mental health of the participants. These findings add to our growing understanding of homeless families and point to notable similarities and differences in homeless families in this city in Canada, and in the United States.

Keywords: Homelessness, Emergency Shelters, Immigration


Contrairement a l'abondante recherche qui existe sur les individus qui vivant sans-abri, on en connait peu sur les families sans-logis. Cet article dresse un portrait de families sans-abri a Ottawa en Ontario au Canada. Les donnees nous viennent d'une etude (2012-2013) de 75 families vivant dans le reseau de refuges pour families. Les resultats demontrent que ces families sont, en grande partie, composees de personnes qui ne sont pas des citoyens canadiens, c'est-a-dire des immigrants et des refugies. Les individus sont pauvres et sans emploi, mais plusieurs d'entre eux sont eduques. De plus, on constate peu de cas d'abus d'alcool ou des substances illicites. Neanmoins, plusieurs participants a letude ont declare souffrir d'une mauvaise sante mentale et d'un degre eleve de stress. Meme si les families nouvellement arrivees tendent a etre plus nombreuses et sont plus souvent biparentales que les families non-nouvellement arrivees, on ne denote aucune difference de sante mentale ou physique chez les participants. Ces resultats ajoutent a notre comprehension des families sans-abri et font ressortir des similitudes et des differences importantes entre les families sans-logis de cette ville au Canada et celles des Etats-Unis.

Mots cles: Sans-abri, Centre d'Hebergement d'urgence, Immigration

Over 135,000 individuals used emergency shelters in Canada in 2014 (Employment and Social Development Canada [ESDC], 2016). Between 2005 and 2014, the average occupancy rate in emergency shelters rose from 67.3% to 86.3%, primarily due to longer stays (ESDC, 2016). Homelessness arises from an interplay of structural factors (e.g., poverty lack of affordable housing), systems failures (e.g., lack of support for immigrants and refugees), and individual factors (e.g., family conflict, domestic violence, or mental health issues; Gaetz, Donaldson, Richter, & Gulliver, 2013). Moreover, family homelessness in Canada may be the observable "tip of the iceberg" of the broader and larger problems of family poverty unaffordable housing, income insecurity, and poor quality housing in Canada (Gulliver-Garcia, 2016).

In the United States, family homelessness emerged in the 1980s as a major social and public health concern (Grant, Gracy, Goldsmith, Shapiro, & Redlener, 2013). Despite an increase in child and family homelessness over time, research attention devoted to the issue decreased (Grant et al., 2013). Prior research in the United States, which comprises a great proportion of all the research conducted on this topic, has largely focused on the characteristics or circumstances of homelessness families (e.g., Bassuk, 1990; Fertig & Reingold, 2008; Nunez & Fox, 1999). Single female-headed families, for example, are over-represented among U.S. homeless families (Culhane, Metraux, Park, Schretzman, & Valente, 2007; McChesney, 1995). Other characteristics include: family disruption of mothers during their childhood (Bassuk et al., 1997; Shinn et al., 1998), parental mental health problems (Fertig & Reingold, 2008), poor work histories (Bassuk et al., 1996, 1997; Howard, Cartwright, & Barajas, 2009), ineffective parenting practices, and a lack of social support (Bassuk et al., 1996, 1997; Shinn, Knickman, Weitzman, 1991). Education and skills deficits (Bassuk et al., 1996, 1997; Howard et al., 2009), and alcohol and drug abuse were also commonly associated with family homelessness and shelter entry (Bassuk et al., 1997; McChesney, 1995) along with being members of a minority group (Bassuk et al., 1997; Shinn et al., 1998) and, among homeless families headed by women, experiences of domestic abuse and violence (Bassuk, 1986, 1990; Browne & Bassuk, 1997; McChesney, 1995).

Canadian studies have largely been descriptive based on convenience samples of families in emergency shelters. In an early study, Neufeld-Redekop and Zamprelli (2001) surveyed 112 emergency shelters in primarily urban centres across Canada, including 33 emergency shelters, 64 family violence shelters, and 15 municipal programs that provided temporary shelter to homeless families in accommodations, such as motels. About four-fifths of children in these shelters were under the age of 12. Approximately 10% of families reported an income from employment, whereas over a third of families in family violence shelters reported no income at all. Financial assistance and affordable housing were the primary needs of homeless families when they exited the shelters and over half of the families needed additional support services to maintain stable housing when they exited, such as counselling in life skills, childcare, and training and employment skills. These findings paint a portrait of families that are young, poor, and in need of support to find and maintain housing. Waegemakers Schiff (2007) studied 23 families accessing shelter services from a non-profit organization in Calgary, Alberta, of whom 48% were two-parent families. Half of the families reported an Aboriginal background and two were immigrants. Further, 65% of the adults reported that they had experienced domestic violence, although only 15% cited it as the reason they had become homeless.

Since the early 1990s, Canada has sustained high levels of immigration, sponsored refugees, and refugee claimants (Fiedler, Schuurman, & Hyndman, 2006). At the same time, funding to government assistance programs has decreased and the economy has under-performed. Consequently, newcomers may find themselves with less support and fewer opportunities for establishing themselves in the labour force, making them more susceptible to poverty and homelessness. D'Addario, Hiebert, and Sherrell (2007) found that immigrants and refugees represented 18% of shelter users in the Greater Vancouver area. Aubry, Klodawsky, Hay, and Birnie (2003) conducted a panel study of homelessness in Ottawa, sampling from five subgroups including families. Of homeless families, 61% were Canadian citizens and 39% were non-Canadian citizens. Their sampling strategy was based on the known breakdown in the local shelter population. Further, 83% of heads of families were female and 61% had completed high school (including 33% who had some post-secondary education). Only 2% of participants reported an alcohol abuse problem and 2% reported a substance abuse problem.

In subsequent analyses of 45 foreign born and 45 Canadian born matched participants, which included single adults, youth, and heads of families, Klodawsky, Aubry, and Nemiroff (2014) reported that foreign born participants had significantly better self-reported mental health and physical health than Canadian born participants. Canadian-born participants also reported more chronic health problems and substance use problems than did foreign-born participants. As these comparisons were not restricted to heads of families, it is unclear whether these findings also apply to this homeless sub-population. Additionally, the comparisons were based on place of birth and differences in health between Canadian-born and immigrant populations may fade after about 10 years (Newbold, 2005a, 2005b; Ng & Omariba, 2010).

Over the course of one year, Paradis, Novac, Sarty and Hulchanski (2008) conducted three interviews with 91 single-parent women experiencing homelessness. The sample included 41 homeless immigrant and refugee women who had migrated to Canada within five years of the interview, and 50 Canadian-born women. Most women in the sample had completed secondary school; 20% of women who were immigrants or refugees, and 4% of the Canadian-born women had completed some post-secondary education. Although all women had low income, a third of the newcomer women had annual incomes below $5,000, whereas only about one out of 20 permanent residents and Canadian-born women had annual incomes below $5,000. For over half of the respondents (57%), this was their first episode of homelessness in Toronto. However, Canadian-born women were far more likely to have been homeless before (65%) than were newcomers (44%).

Findings from a national study of emergency shelter use from 2005 to 2014 provide an up-to-date description of shelter users in Canada (ESDC, 2016). As the sample was derived from emergency shelters, it does not include Violence Against...

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