Among homeless, women are growing, vulnerable group

Posted February 28, 2013

Written by Beth Lyons

(This post originally appeared in the Times & Transcript on February 28th, 2013, and is shared with permission.)

Ask someone what they picture when they think of a homeless person and chances are they will tell you it’s a man in tattered clothes, panhandling on a sidewalk.

Although homelessness certainly can look like that, it also takes other forms. People often have a skewed or narrow image of what forms homelessness takes and what its root causes are — particularly when it comes to women. Women are, in fact, the fastest growing homeless population in Canada. For this reason, this week YWCA Canada launched Homes for Women, a long-term campaign to prevent, reduce, and ultimately eliminate women’s homelessness in Canada. Homes for Women is a partnership between YWCA Canada, the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Frye Societies, Canada Without Poverty-Advocacy Network and Canadian Labour Congress.

In addition to the partners, Homes for Women is supported by YWCAs and YMCA-YWCAs across Canada, as well as the Canadian Women’s Foundation. The launch of Homes for Women comes just before Parliament votes on Bill C-400, an act that would ensure secure, adequate, accessible and affordable housing for Canadians. Supporters of the Bill note that passing the act would mean that Canada would no longer be the only G8 country without a national strategy for housing and homelessness.

Women’s housing is an issue YWCA Canada has been addressing for years. Last year, YWCA Canada released a snapshot of women’s homelessness in Canada. The snapshot shares that there are an estimated 150, 000-300,000 Canadians who are homeless. The snapshot also reported 25 to 30 per cent of those living on the streets or in shelters in large cities are women and that an alarming portion of that percentage is comprised of young women. Despite these numbers, women’s homelessness is often hidden. Women alternate staying in shelters with ‘couch surfing’ among friends; other women appear to have a place to stay, when in reality they are being exploited and abused, forced to trade sex for shelter.

The link between homelessness and abuse is undeniable, with abuse being both a result and a cause of homelessness. According to the Canadian Women’s Foundation, on any given day in Canada, over 3,000 women (and their 2,500 children) are living in emergency shelters because of domestic violence. Most young women who are homeless in Canada are fleeing violence in the home, including sexual abuse (one study that YWCA Canada cites in their snapshot says that one Vancouver-based study found that 60 per cent of homeless youth aged 12 to 18 had been sexually abused). Women flee their homes because of violence, only to find themselves even more vulnerable to violence due to homelessness.

Homeless women are also at higher-risk for incarceration. The YWCA’s snapshot reports that women are the fastest growing prison population worldwide, which can be attributed in large part to the cuts that social intervention programs have suffered in recent years. With fewer and fewer programs available to women in crisis, prisons become the net that catches these women, and homeless women are particularly vulnerable to being absorbed into the prison system.

Aboriginal women are particularly vulnerable to violence and homelessness, and are also significantly overrepresented in the prison system. “With depleted social service and health systems no longer providing adequate accommodation, criminal justice and correctional systems are increasingly the only response to women,” explains Kim Pate, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies. “Prisons are not an appropriate response to women’s homelessness.”

Women’s homelessness is not just a big-city issue. Since 2000, Greater Moncton has had a Homelessness Steering Committee, an inter-agency group that brings together representatives from organizations in Greater Moncton that are taking action on homelessness. Since 2008, the Committee has been publishing an annual report card on homelessness, as well as a quarterly newsletter. The Committee’s 2012 report card states that in 2011, shelter beds in the Moncton area were used a staggering 7,378 times. The government’s Women’s Issues Branch reports that in 2009/2010, 1,117 women and 634 children were admitted to N.B. transitional housing facilities for victims of violence.

Greater Moncton is also home to some fantastic initiatives addressing homelessness. At Home/Chez Soi, a federal multi-city project that provides subsidized and supportive housing to with people living with mental health issues who have a history of homelessness, has a site in Moncton. to provide subsidized and supportive housing. Operating since 2009, the Moncton site has reported a 93 per cent successful housing rate since January 2012.

YWCA Moncton is targeting women’s homelessness with its Homes for Her housing strategy, which is funded by the federal Homelessness Partnership Strategy and being carried out in collaboration with Crossroads for Women. Currently, Homes for Her is offering subsidized, supportive housing to women in the Moncton area who are homeless or at-risk of being homeless. So that is what homelessness looks like. It looks like young women who have a place to stay, but only because they’re being sexually exploited in return. It looks like women with mental health and addiction issues locked up in prison, and abuse and trauma survivors living in shelters with their children. It looks like this in Toronto, and it looks like this right here in Moncton. If you are interested in learning more about the Homes for Women campaign and helping to erase women’s homelessness in Canada, visit

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