What Causes Homelessness? Homelessness as a Social Problem

June 18, 2014 | Written by

For those who live in busy cities, it is easy to become numb to the homelessness problem around us. We see homeless people on the streets, asking for change or collecting bottles. We accept that a certain amount of homelessness is inevitable. But homelessness is not a given. We can not only reduce homelessness, we can abolish it altogether. Most people understand that homelessness is related to mental health and addictions issues. However, thinking about homelessness as an individual problem is the wrong way to address the issue. According to “The State of Homelessness in Canada (2013),” a recent study by The Homeless Hub and the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, homelessness is a societal problem. “The problem of homelessness and housing exclusion refers to the failure of society to ensure that adequate systems, funding and support are in place so that all people… have access to housing.” For those battling homelessness, it is nearly impossible to get a job, to achieve treatment for mental health, or to battle against substance abuse and addictions issues. Solving the affordable-housing-crisis is the first and most necessary step towards battling homelessness, mental health and addictions.

“The point is that homelessness is a problem or a crisis that we created. And if we created it, we can end it” (15).

What Causes Homelessness?

It is important to understand homelessness in Canada as a complex problem. Most people do not choose homelessness. Instead, homelessness results from a social system which fails to catch and support people who are at risk of homelessness. The State of Homelessness in Canada (2013), states that homelessness “is the result of systemic or societal barriers. Homelessness is the result of a lack of affordable and appropriate housing, financial, mental, cognitive, behavioural or physical challenges, and/or racism and discrimination” (4). In Canada, the issue of homelessness can be further connected to changes in the economy, the housing market, and significant shifts in policies that address poverty. The causes of homelessness reflect an intricate interplay between structural factors, systems failures, and individual circumstances. It is best to consider homelessness as the result of the cumulative impact of a number of factors, rather than a single cause.

Structural factors:

This defines economic and societal issues which impact opportunities and social environments. Key factors include; lack of adequate income, access to affordable housing and health supports and experiences of discrimination, and shifts in the economy that can leave people unable to pay their bills. Access to affordable housing is the most impactful factor; however discrimination can impede access to employment, housing, justice, and helpful services.

Systems Failures:

This describes when systems of care and support fail, resulting in vulnerable people being forced into homelessness. Examples include; difficult transitions from child welfare, inadequate discharge planning for people leaving hospitals, corrections, mental health and addictions facilities, and lack of support for immigrants and refugees.
Individual and Relational Factors:
Homelessness is a societal issue; however, individual and relational factors can impact a person’s likelihood of becoming homeless. These factors may include; traumatic events, personal crisis, mental health and addictions challenges, family violence and abuse, addictions and mental health problems of family members, and extreme poverty. Family violence is estimated to affect 2 million Canadians (StatisticsCanada2011), and can force individuals and families to leave home suddenly, without proper supports in place (13).

The Affordable Housing Crisis:

The Homeless Hub and the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness identify the lack of affordable housing as having the most profound impact on homelessness. According to “The State of Homelessness in Canada (2013),” reduction of spending on affordable housing began in the mid-1990s. The Canadian government’s housing policy shifted from direct investment in housing towards an incentive based program to encourage private ownership to take over affordable housing projects. These efforts have not been able to respond to the affordable housing needs.

Declining Income and Growing Inequality:

Between 1980 and 2005, the incomes of the top 20% wealthiest Canadians increased by 16% while the average earnings among the least wealthy fell by 20%. According to Gaetz (2010), the growing inequality is largely due to wage suppression, benefit reduction, growth of part time work at the expense of full time work, and the deindustrialization of the Canadian economy. What results is that low income people are left with less purchasing power, making it harder to pay for basic necessities.

Reduction in benefits for low income Canadians:

Funding for health, post-secondary education, and social welfare services have been significantly reduced for low income Canadians. This means that there are fewer security nets in place for those who are at risk of homelessness, and fewer tools available to help people transcend homelessness.
“The problem of homelessness and housing exclusion refers to the failure of society to ensure that adequate systems, funding and support are in place so that all people… have access to housing”


A recent Government of Canada study indicates that between 2005 and 2009, there was little change in the number of individuals who use shelters on an annual basis. (8) However, in 2013 the Government of Canada committed $119 million towards ending homelessness.
Solving housing stability is the first necessary step for the success of other interventions such as education and training, life skill development, management of mental health challenges, and treatment of substance abuse. Studies on housing first projects across Canada point the way to how we can effectively contribute to an end to homelessness through the adoption and adaptation of Housing First projects. The State of Homelessness in Canada (2013), by The Homeless Hub and The Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness has put forward a number of recommendations for ending homelessness in Canada.

  1. Communities should develop and implement clear plans to end homelessness, supported by all levels of government.
  2. All levels of government must work to increase the supply of affordable housing.
  3. Communities – and all levels of government – should embrace Housing First.
  4. Eliminating chronic and episodic homelessness should be prioritized.
  5. Ending Aboriginal Homelessness should be prioritized as both a distinct category of action and part of the overall strategy to end homelessness.
  6. Introduce more comprehensive data collection, performance monitoring, analysis and research.

6.1 The Government of Canada should institute a national Point in Time Count of homelessness.
6.2 Funders should support communities to conduct effective and reliable program evaluations.
6.3 The Government of Canada should mandate implementation of Homelessness Information Management                               Systems. (9)


(2013) “The State of Homelessness in Canada.” A Homeless Hub Research Paper. Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness.

(2011) “Homeownership and Shelter Costs in Canada.” Statistics Canada.

(2012) “Quiet Crisis: Homelessness and at Risk in Greater Victoria.” Greater Victoria Report on Housing and Supports. University of Victoria Center for Addictions Research of BC. Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness.




The Anawim Companion Society


Written by Brian Whin-Yates; 

Social Media Director


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