Vulnerability to homelessness much higher than before pandemic, researcher says

A national researcher says the homeless population, a very diverse group, is severely undercounted. (Pierre Fournier/CBC News - image credit)
A national researcher says the homeless population, a very diverse group, is severely undercounted. (Pierre Fournier/CBC News - image credit)

A lot more people are vulnerable to homelessness than before the pandemic, including people with developmental disabilities and dementia and their caregivers.

That's according to a national researcher who hosted a forum in Moncton Tuesday. Cheryl Forchuk is involved in a federally funded project called Homelessness Counts.

She and her teammates have visited 28 communities in every province and territory in the last two years and have interviewed 400 people experiencing homelessness and 190 service providers.

She says the homeless population, a very diverse group, is severely undercounted.


Current data suggests 235,000 people experience homelessness in Canada in the course of a year, said Forchuk, who is the assistant scientific director at Lawson Health Research Institute in London, Ont.

Supports such as program funding are based on that number, but the current methods for calculating numbers are based on access to services, said Forchuk.

That's a problem, she said, because it doesn't account for smaller communities and rural areas that don't have services such as shelters.

As an alternative method to calculate the rate of homelessness, Forchuk's group used data from health cards in Ontario. That indicated the number of people experiencing homelessness was three times higher than previously thought, she said.

Health cards aren't a perfect method either, said Forchuk, because not everyone accesses health care. She and her colleagues are trying to figure out what other data could be pulled in to come up with more accurate numbers.

With one year remaining in their project, they want to get feedback and direction from all interested parties, Forchuk said.

And there's lots to talk about. There's been a huge increase in homelessness during the pandemic, she said.

Sixteen per cent of those interviewed said they were experiencing homelessness for the first time, she said. And their issues have become increasingly complex.

Poverty is an obvious risk factor, said Forchuk, but people who are neurodiverse are now more likely to experience homelessness, as well — with conditions such as autism spectrum disorder, developmental handicaps and Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia.

In some cases, they became homeless along with their adult supporters, she said. "It seems the social safety net was really stretched to the limit," said Forchuk.

Canada is the only industrialized nation that doesn't have housing at the national level, said Forchuk. It was downloaded to the provincial level over a few decades ending in the 1990s. "We've ended up with a real hodgepodge," she said.

There is once again a national housing strategy, but it's based on pre-pandemic numbers, said Forchuk. "We have to know the size of the problem to adequately deal with it."

Involvement is needed from all jurisdictions, she said, including municipalities, which have housing bylaws and can control how difficult it is to rent a room and whether to place restrictions on converting low-income housing units into short-term rentals, such as Airbnbs.

This has been one of the factors in the recent increase in homelessness, said Forchuk, along with other aspects of the hot real estate market.

"In some communities we found group homes were entirely emptied and renovicted and sold."

The provincial health and social services departments also have roles to play, she said.

Funding announced for more tiny homes

The Moncton forum coincided with an announcement by the New Brunswick government that it will contribute funding to develop more tiny homes in Fredericton.

"Dozens of low-income individuals that were confronted with homelessness have already found a home in the 12 Neighbours Community and many more will have that opportunity thanks to Phase 2 of the project," said Jill Green, the minister responsible for housing.

Government of New Brunswick
Government of New Brunswick

The first phase of funding covered the first 36 units. The second — a total of $13.3 million from the provincial and the federal governments — covers the subsequent 60, some of which have already been built.

Earlier this month, founder Marcel LeBrun said after its first year in operation, 12 Neighbours had become home to about 45 people, some of whom went from living on the street to housed and employed.

The community also features a learning hub and social enterprises.

Green called it "the most innovative initiative that has been developed in New Brunswick to help vulnerable residents in need of housing."

The funding breaks down into a $2.4 million forgivable loan through the Affordable Rental Housing Program — which gives money to private entrepreneurs, non-profit corporations and co-operatives to build, repair and convert rental housing, $7.1 million for rent supplements over the next 20 years and $3.8 million from the National Housing Co-Investment fund, which applies to both phases of the project.