The Intersection of Gender and Homelessness – Addressing the Root Causes of Women’s Homelessness
Homelessness definitely has a stereotype: a single, older adult male asking for change on the city streets. However, women make up 27% of the overall homeless population in Canada.
On International Women’s Day, it is important that we acknowledge the hardships that women, girls, and gender-diverse people experiencing homelessness face on a daily basis. Without a door to lock safely behind them, women are at great risk of physical, emotional, and psychological harm.
Although awareness of these issues has been growing, there is still much work to be done to ensure that women who are homeless have access to the resources they need to thrive.
Let’s look at some of the challenges women experience when facing homelessness in Canada.
What are the challenges?
EMPLOYMENT & INCOME
One of the key factors contributing to women’s vulnerability to poverty and homelessness is insufficient or precarious income. Women are more likely than men to work part-time, casual, or contract jobs with limited job security or benefits.
Additionally, despite making up almost half of Canada’s workforce, women still earn an average of 89 cents for every dollar earned by a man for doing the same job — this wage gap further contributes to their vulnerability.
Women are more likely to leave work for maternity, childcare, or elder care, resulting in extended breaks in their employment which can lead to a loss of networks, connections, and confidence. The longer women remain unemployed, the harder it is for them to re-enter the labour force.
Without a good job, it is impossible to escape homelessness.
GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE AND ABUSE
Women also experience higher rates of violence. Violence against women by intimate partners is often the cause of homelessness. The Canadian Women’s Foundation estimates that, on any given night in Canada, 6,000 women (often with children) seek refuge in emergency shelters because it isn’t safe at home.
Domestic violence often goes hand-in-hand with financial abuse whereby abusers control their victim’s access to money or prevent them from working outside the home – both factors contribute heavily towards increasing their risk of homelessness if they leave their abuser.
Research also shows that women who have experienced domestic violence are often dealing with depression and PTSD, and will face significant discrimination from landlords when trying to find a home.
Once they enter homelessness, women face unique and profound forms of violence and are regular victims of sexual assault, rape, robbery, insults, and threats. Data shows that about 96% of homeless women have experienced some form of violence.
Housing and mental health are often linked. Women with precarious housing who are experiencing mental health issues such as depression or anxiety are also at risk of becoming homeless due to inadequate supports or treatment options available. As a result, many women end up living on the streets or in shelters and the stress of homelessness worsens their mental health – a vicious cycle.
Women who don’t have a home face higher rates of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse than women who are housed. This is often another cause of mental health issues.
In fact, homeless women are living with mental illness at much higher rates than the general population. About 75% of homeless women struggle with disorders such as anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia.
Women living on low incomes also tend to be more at risk for physical health problems due to inadequate access to nutritious food, proper housing, and childcare.
Maintaining good physical health is a common challenge. Accessing menstrual products, personal hygiene products, and a reliable private place for self-care is difficult at the best of times. It can be a full-time (and sometimes impossible) job.
Similarly, without access to primary health care and regular screening, women face higher health risks.
Women are more likely to experience what is called ”hidden homelessness”. This could mean staying in an abusive relationship to avoid living on the street, short-term stays with friends or relatives, trading sex for a place to live, living in a car, or sharing a living space with others well beyond its capacity.
Women facing hidden homelessness will often cycle through whatever options they have – couch-surfing, the shelter system, time on the street, etc. – to avoid overstaying their welcome while struggling to get back on their feet. These examples of hidden homelessness make it difficult to accurately estimate the number of women and families experiencing homelessness in Canada.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
Shelters designed specifically for women and their individual needs are essential. More and more women in Toronto are experiencing homelessness, are using shelters or are precariously housed. In addition, there is an acute lack of women-only, trauma-informed housing services in Toronto. In response to this growing need, Fred Victor offers shelters designed specifically for women experiencing homelessness and poverty.
Our Fatima House is an accessible and pet-friendly shelter for women. The shelter offers nutritious meals, counselling, and healthcare services, as well as housing support. Staff onsite work with the women to help them secure and transition to a permanent and affordable place to live.
Our Mary Sheffield House is a transitional shelter serving senior women ages 55+ who are vulnerable due to complex physical, mental health, developmental, and/or substance-use-related issues. Here staff help women find housing and work with each woman to put appropriate supports in place so that they do not end up back on the street.
These shelters represent a new beginning. For the women moving in, it is an opportunity to start rebuilding their lives. It is also a step forward in ending the stigma surrounding homelessness and homeless shelters. The good quality and intentional design of our spaces, as well as the extensive wrap-around services offered by our staff, help to change the image of what a shelter should be.
HOW CAN I HELP?
Give a Women’s Day Gift so that no woman is turned away.
Fred Victor operates four dedicated sites just for women. Your gift ensures the doors are always open to a woman in need. You can help us put nutritious food on the table, ensure there is always a clean private washroom with hygiene supplies and compassionate staff at the door.