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A study says Canada’s homeless women are ‘invisible.’ COVID-19 could make it worse

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A new research project shows women experiencing homelessness in Canada are largely invisible and falling through major gaps in support systems — and into dangerous situations.

The study, led by the Women’s National Housing and Homelessness Network, says the scope is dramatically underestimated because women are more likely to rely on precarious and sometimes dangerous support, such as by sleeping on couches or trading sex for housing.

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Studies of homelessness also largely fail to count women fleeing gender-based violence and women trapped in situations of sex trafficking, according to the report.

This means the scale of homelessness among women, girls and gender-diverse people is larger than official estimates would suggest.

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“The ways we measure homelessness in Canada often look really at just visible homelessness in the street, but women’s homelessness is really distinct,” said Kaitlin Schwan, senior researcher at the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, which was involved in the report.

Pledge to Stay In + Sleep Out Friday night and support youth homelessness
Pledge to Stay In + Sleep Out Friday night and support youth homelessness

“The hidden nature of women’s homelessness can become invisible at the policy level and so we don’t get the kind of investments and funding that we really need to address the issue.”

Statistics Canada data from 2019 shows emergency shelters for those fleeing gender-based violence were already turning away nearly 1,000 women and children a day before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

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The pandemic then caused a strain on existing homelessness resources, with some shelters having to reduce services or close due to public health and physical distancing rules.

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Now, with women feeling a disproportionate economic impacts from COVID-19, particularly those who are from racialized communities or single parents, Schwan said she expects more women to be homeless as eviction moratoriums begin to lift, making things more critical.

“COVID is really is going to be disproportionately affecting women, because women are much more likely to live in poverty, much more likely to be working minimum-wage jobs without security, especially if they’re single parents,” she said.

“They are going to be facing a risk of eviction that maybe they hadn’t before, so we’re at risk of having this whole new wave of women across Canada who are becoming homeless for the first time in the context of a system that was already overburdened before COVID.”

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The study is the first ever comprehensive national portrait of women’s homelessness, and involved a review of all available evidence on the situation in Canada.

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The study also revealed homeless women and LGBTQ people are at much higher risk of violence.

Data shows more than 37 per cent of homeless young women have experienced a sexual assault in the last 12 months, compared to 8.2 per cent of homeless young men. Ninety-one per cent of women experiencing homelessness have experienced an assault in their lifetime.

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Also over the last year, more than 35 per cent of LGBTQ youth have experienced a sexual assault, compared to 14.8 per cent of youth who do not identify as LGBTQ.

The report says women who do access emergency shelters are often further harmed by bureaucratic policies, including the prospect of losing custody of their children.

Indigenous women in particular are experiencing the most profound forms of housing need in all parts of the country, and disproportionate levels of violence, the research shows, but they also remain the most underserved when it comes to both those areas of support.

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East Preston family helps homeless people survive the heat wave

Data shows 70 per cent of northern reserves have no safe houses or emergency shelters for women escaping violence, and shelters in urban centres often do not offer welcoming or culturally appropriate programs or services for Indigenous women.

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Schwan says the deeply embedded and systemic shortfalls in housing and social supports for Indigenous women show the issue needs to be tackled beyond expanding emergency homeless supports.

COVID-19 offers Canada an opportunity to reimagine its overall response to homelessness, especially as many public conversations are now focused on systemic barriers that cause disproportionately negative outcomes for some populations, she said.

“Certainly, more funds are needed with respect to addressing this emergency response piece to homelessness, but honestly, more important than that is really investing in increasing our availability of affordable housing,” Schwan said.

“The solution to homelessness to people of all genders is housing.”