Visible homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the housing crisis across Canada. For women, girls, and gender-diverse people, homelessness is often hidden, meaning they are more likely to be in abusive relationships than to escape to shelters, couch surf, or end up on the streets. Because of this we know little about their experiences.
New data from the Pan-Canadian Women’s Housing and Homelessness Survey, the largest gender-specific data collection of its kind in Canada, tells us a clear story.
Lack of access to housing has causes and effects, and gender equality in Canada depends on fair access to adequate housing. This survey, completed by 500 women and gender-diverse people in 12 provinces and territories, shows us why housing is a women’s rights issue.
housing affordability and low income
Twenty-eight percent of women-led households struggle with the affordability, suitability or adequacy of their housing. This is almost twice the rate of households headed by men.
The Pan-Canadian survey found that many women and people of gender diversity who have experienced homelessness have no money to pay for housing. Only 14.2 per cent can survive after paying rent.
We know that women and gender-diverse people still earn less than men, limiting access to a booming housing market. Women are also more likely to have minimum wage or part-time employment, which means housing is not even more affordable for them.
In the pan-Canadian survey, 60.2 percent of participants reported that they did not have a place to live, and 46.5 percent reported that they were not able to afford damage deposits, moving expenses and/or utility hookups.
Participants also noted that the affordable housing available was insufficient for children (15.2 percent), in poor condition (40.8 percent), insecure (32.8 percent) or inaccessible (over 70 percent) for people with disabilities.
More than a third of participants were also forced to leave their most recent residence because they could not afford it any more (34.8 percent). Gender pay inequalities have a real impact on women’s right to housing.
Accommodation often depends on a romantic partner
The homeless count of the general population, without the lens of gender, reports that the top reasons people lose housing are due to addiction and substance abuse.
In contrast, the Pan-Canadian survey reported that 47 percent of participants said a breakup was the main reason they lost their most recent residence. This means that many women and gender-diverse people are forced to choose between being in a personal or romantic relationship or being homeless.
Under human rights standards, the housing of women and gender-diverse people should not depend on their relationship status.
Advancing gender equality in Canada means protecting free housing for women and increasing access to home ownership for low-income women and gender-diverse people.
Struggling to find access to emergency shelters
Women-specific homelessness services in Canada are overcrowded and underfunded. Participants reported major barriers to accessing emergency shelters, with nearly a third (32.6 percent) unable to access a bed when they needed one.
The problem is even worse in rural, remote and northern communities, where there is a lack of shelter beds for women, Indigenous, racial and 2SLGBTQIA+ people, as well as people with disabilities. Of this 32.6 percent shared that the main reason they were unable to access a shelter was that the services were too high when they arrived.
Additional barriers arise because of shelters with additional rules for entry. Participants shared instances of being denied service for reasons that included pregnancy, not meeting the criteria for domestic abuse, shelter unsuitable for their physical needs, or too masculine-presenting.
When they were unable to access shelter, many participants went on to resort to rigorous sleep, survival sex, return to abusive situations, and begging friends or acquaintances. Addressing the housing gender gap means ensuring equal access to emergency shelter and services for women and gender-diverse people.
If policy, programming and practice do not explicitly incorporate gender-based realities, women, girls and gender-diverse people will be left behind.
What was previously known only through stories and small-scale studies, turns out to be a clear message in the pan-Canadian survey. The reality of housing costs, reliance on personal or romantic relationships to live in a home and limited access to shelters is made worse by how little we know and see about women and gender-diverse homelessness.
The hidden nature of gender homelessness means that many women and gender-diverse people are not included in the homelessness count, so their needs are not met and recognized.
To achieve equality for women and gender-diverse people in Canada, we need to hold governments accountable and demand to tackle the issue of gender inequality in housing.