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In the north, homeless women have reportedly had to sleep with rotting garbage in order to keep warm in arctic winters. | photo: Ed Maruyama / KlixPix

In the north, homeless women have reportedly had to sleep with rotting garbage in order to keep warm in arctic winters. | photo: Ed Maruyama / KlixPix

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report homeless women in Canada

by Sierra Bacquie | August 22, 2008

“Homelessness is a life-threatening condition for women.”

So says one of two recently released reports on homeless women – one focusing on women in a large urban centre; the other on rural women in the far north:

  • The Women & Homelessness Research Bulletin #2 – released jointly in June 2008 by Street Health and Sistering – details the results of a survey of 100 homeless women in Toronto.
  • You Just Blink and It Can Happen: A Study of Women’s Homelessness North of 60 is a compendium of three separate studies of a total of 200 homeless women in Canada’s far north – carried out by a team of community-based and social-service agencies – which was released in November 2007.

Both studies shed new and disturbing light on the unique circumstances and particular hardships faced by homeless women in Canada. In this regard, the facts speak for themselves:

  • homeless women are under-housed, under-slept and under-fed;
  • 84% of homeless women reported having at least one serious physical health condition;
  • 33% of homeless women have difficulty walking, a lost limb or some other impairment of mobility;
  • homeless women aged 18–44 are ten times more likely to die than women of the same ages who have homes;
  • more than half (55%) of homeless women have had a mental-health diagnosis;
  • roughly one-third of homeless women reported difficulty with the basics of personal hygiene, such as bathing, using the bathroom obtaining pads and tampons and washing clothes;
  • 80% of women in the northern study have children who are in someone else’s care.

As well, homeless women suffer from certain illnesses and health conditions in significantly greater numbers than housed women:

  • 50% of homeless women have arthritis (v. 20% of women in the general population);
  • 20% have heart disease (v. a 4% average);
  • 43% suffer from migraines (v. 15%);
  • 29% have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (v. 1%).

The particular conditions of the far north – the harsh climate, underdeveloped infrastructure, geographic isolation, high cost of living coupled with limited opportunities for employment – only exacerbate the hardships experienced by homeless women in the south:

  • all women in the north are at risk of becoming homeless, according to the North of 60 study, and it is a short slide into homelessness;
  • homeless women in the north have reportedly had to sleep with rotting garbage in order to keep warm in arctic winters, where the temperature can dip to -60° C.

There are an estimated 1,000 homeless women in the north, with 500 Yellowknife alone, 300 in Iqaluit – and a total of 2,000 if the women’s children are added in.

The extremely cold temperatures in the north make sleeping in the street a mortal risk. This results in a preponderance of “invisible” or “hidden” homelessness. These terms denote situations in which women stay with friends or relatives temporarily and/or stay with a man solely to obtain shelter. They may have a roof over their heads, but the have no home of their own.

In fact, invisible or hidden homelessness is one point on a continuum of homelessness outlined in the northern study, which includes:

  • absolute homelessness, where women stay in emergency shelters and hostels or “sleep rough in places considered unfit for human habitation, such as parks, ravines, doorways, vehicles and abandoned buildings”;
  • invisible homelessness;
  • women at risk of becoming homeless, meaning those who are one step away from eviction, bankruptcy or family separation;
  • those with a core housing need, where the housing is neither adequate, affordable nor sustainable.

Rarely is the public given the insight into the specifics of homeless women’s daily lives that these two studies provide. The Toronto study sums up these women’s daily existence with three words: difficult, stressful and dangerous – which is probably understating the case. One need only try to imagine what it would be like to be suffering from a blinding migraine, a bad cold, severe back pain or menstrual cramps – but have no bed of your own and no place to call home. For a person who’s always had those things, it’s almost unfathomable.

And then there is violence. Sistering’s research indicates that 20% of the women who contributed to the Toronto study had been sexually assaulted or raped in the last year alone (compared with 3% of women in the general population who reported having been sexually assaulted within a 12-month period in 2004, according to Statistics Canada).

The authors of the northern study state clearly that, with respect to the plight of homeless women, “Canada is not living up to the reputation or commitments to the United Nations economic and social rights.” Nor is it regarding the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Specifically with respect to articles 3 and 25 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Canada does appear to be coming up short:

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

— article 3

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

— article 25 (1)

Earlier this year, The Federation of Municipalities called for a ten-year, $3.5 billion-per-year national strategy to eliminate homelessness.

On July 23, 2008, Social Development Minister Monte Solberg stated in a funding announcement for a Vancouver youth shelter that “Ottawa is doing its share to address homelessness” and that the current government is “spending more money on affordable housing than any government in Canadian history.” According to Human Resources and Social Development Canada, the federal government is investing over $2.7 billion this year, helping more than 626,000 low-income families get housing as a result.

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