An encampment of houseless persons in Edmonton in December of 2023.
An encampment of houseless persons in Edmonton in December of 2023. Credit: Occupy Calgary / X Credit: Occupy Calgary / X

Every night over 35,000 Canadians have nowhere to sleep. Youth between the ages of 13 and 24 make up 20 per cent of the unhoused population in Canada.

Between 2018 to 2023, there was an 88 per cent increase of visibly unsheltered folks within large cities as well as smaller communities. The Ontario Municipal Social Services Association (OMSSA) wanted to generate a public discussion around the causes and challenges fueling the unhoused crisis.

A team of Ontario researchers stepped up to the plate and using their findings want to shift the narrative away from individual blame and actions that reinforce stereotypes and assign social worth.

Instead, these women want to focus the conversation towards recognizing the unhoused crisis was caused by a decades-long erosion of public safety nets. The research is clear that no one in Ontario is immune from finding themselves unhoused.

“People are upset about having to bear witness to visible homelessness, having to see it in communities where they’ve never experienced it before, and a lot of those feelings come from a place of fear,” said Erin Dej, Associate Professor in the Department of Criminology at Wilfrid Laurier University.

“They’re saying they don’t feel comfortable going to the library or that they feel scared when waiting for a bus. We need to acknowledge that fear and help people understand that this is a shared problem, and that all of those people who they see suffering on the streets are actually neighbours who need their help,” Dej added.

Dej, along with Naomi Nichols, Associate Professor of Sociology and Canada Research Chair in Community-Partnered Social Justice, at Trent University and Jessica Braimoh, Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Science (Criminology) at York University, will present findings from their research into unhoused folks in Canada at the upcoming Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences (Congress 2024), taking place June 12 to 21 in Montreal.

Dej, Nichols and Braimoh will provide an honest look at the unhoused crisis based on their experiences working in their respective communities of Waterloo, Peterborough and Toronto.

Their goal is to shift the narrative away from hate and criminalization towards active strategies aimed at inclusion and belonging. That goal requires a commitment to focus on listening as the starting point to any solution, allowing people to articulate how they are feeling without judgement and then using that public dialogue to identify local action and policy shifts to implement.

Nichols’ lab at Trent University is working with local stakeholders in Peterborough to develop a roadmap for change, applying a grassroots approach to action planning based on ongoing information sharing, including hearing from those who are currently unhoused as well as those providing services.

Historically, the go-to-choice for dealing with unhoused folks has been criminalization in the form of issuing trespass notices or arrests.

“When municipalities are struggling to respond, the default is criminalization,” said Dej. “It is imperative that we start to respond in a different way.”

The researchers stress penalizing people for trying to survive together in encampments is the wrong approach. Bulldozing and shutting down encampments is also not a viable solution to a crisis that hinges on addressing engrained structural social inequalities.

“What we’re seeing now is evidence in our face that homelessness is not the result of individual failings. It is the outcome of systematic policy making over the past 20 years that has eroded everything communities need to function safely with wellness and resilience,” said Nichols.

Cuts to public housing, Ontario Disability Support Program and Ontario Works payments, public education and access to mental health and addiction supports as well as removing rent caps have fueled the unhoused crisis in Ontario under the Doug Ford government.

“We need to be more willing to see one another as differently impacted by the same set of social forces that are making us all feel less secure,” Nichols stated.

There is a greater diversity among unhoused folk. They include those with substance abuse disorder, youth, multi-generational families, retired folks and their pets. Many of these folks are employed – often with multiple jobs — or receive pensions and social assistance payments that are inadequate to cover rent, let alone rent increases and living expenses.

Braimoh and Dej have discovered that few people are averse to helping unhoused neighbours. Instead, it’s a sense of fear, feeling overwhelmed and the reality that they don’t feel their neighbourhood is the right place for a warming centre or shelter – also known as NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard).

Unsurprisingly, the researchers found misinformation and rumours generating amongst community members. The disinformation included the notion that unhoused folks are being purposefully bused from one municipality to another where resources are less strained. In reality, most municipalities in Ontario require people to demonstrate a connection to the community before being eligible for services.

“That’s where people are getting stuck,” said Braimoh. “They can’t handle homelessness in their community and they don’t like to look at it, so it’s easier to think ‘these aren’t our people’ and it actually results in inaction.”

The problem remains, doing nothing means social and wealth inequality continues to grow while the net is being cast wider with every passing day and most of us are just one pay cheque away from being homeless as rents, mortgages, and the cost of living becomes increasingly unaffordable.

An important part of any healthy community means feeling like you belong. While Dej, Nichols and Braimoh continue to work with communities to help them see unhoused folks as neighbours who need allies to fight for our combined social justice and human rights, Quan Nguyen is researching the sense of community among young Canadian adults.

According to Statistics Canada, only 37 to 44 per cent of Canadians between 15 to 34-years of age have a strong sense of belonging. Of those over 35-years of age, between 47 to 57 per cent feel like they belong. The loss of community belonging has been directly linked to perceived discrimination and Nguyen is calling for more inclusive and equitable strategies to address feelings of isolation and alienation.

“We confirmed an ongoing, persistent and negative relationship between discrimination and sense of belonging among young people, in particular among minority groups,” said Nguyen, a social work researcher, practitioner and educator at University of Calgary.

“The most effective way to strengthen community belonging among this population is to advocate for inclusive action and policies. Not only do marginalized populations need to receive more resources for their local community programs, but policy makers must continue to focus on ongoing anti-discrimination initiatives in support of minority groups,” Nguyen added.

At Congress 2024, Nguyen will share findings drawn from an in-depth literature review as well as quantitative analysis of 2020 General Social Survey – Social Identity data.

The survey focused on 6,326 young adults from 15 to 34 years of age representing diverse gender, generation status, visible minority status, marital status, disability status, religious affiliation, official language, education level and household income.

The study highlighted the significant negative impact of discrimination on social inclusion and participation, and demonstrated how it hinders young people from forming positive social bonds at the local level.

Previous studies suggested immigrant families experienced increased belonging as they assimilate into Canadian culture. However, Nguyen found the opposite, that second- and third-generation immigrants actually have a declined sense of belonging that causes them to gravitate towards bonding exclusively within their ethnic identities.    

“It could be due to the generation gap or technological advances like social media that present more opportunity for discrimination, but as society changes and evolves, we need to consider these situations,” said Nguyen.

One of the most important findings from his study is that young people living with a disability report the weakest sense of belonging in the face of discrimination. Of those living with a disability, 58.6 per cent saying they faced discrimination, while 59.8 per cent expressed feeling less belonging than their peers. This insight underscores the need to foster acceptance and supportive relationships, as well as the important role that support for community-based initiatives, programs and networks play in improving a sense of belonging within community.

Despite reporting experiencing discrimination, women and people with strong religious affiliations have a stronger sense of belonging due to their active participation in community and religious networks.

Certain racialized community members, namely South Asian, Filipino, West Asian, and Arab Canadians, maintain a stronger sense of community belonging.

Nguyen’s analysis found no significant link between sense of belonging and language proficiency or certain sociodemographic factors such as age, education level and household income.

“The critical take-away from this research is that discrimination significantly hinders a sense of community belonging, but inclusive actions and policies can make a positive difference. We can all play a role in fostering more inclusive and supportive communities for young people,” said Nguyen.

Billed as a leading conference on the critical conversations of our time, Congress 2024 — themed “Sustaining shared futures” — serves as a platform for the unveiling of thousands of research papers and presentations from social sciences and humanities experts worldwide.

Registration is $30 and includes 140+ sessions with a virtual attendance option for many presentations.Visit https:/ to register for a community pass and access the program of events open to the public.

Doreen Nicoll

Doreen Nicoll is weary of the perpetual misinformation and skewed facts that continue to concentrate wealth, power and decision making in the hands of a few to the detriment of the many. As a freelance...