Understanding Homelessness

The causes of homelessness are complex. A slide into homelessness is the result of a number of economic and social factors that impact an individual or family at a personal level. No one chooses to be homeless and it can happen to anyone, from a teenager escaping an abusive home to a senior citizen on a fixed income that cannot cover a rent or tax increase to a child whose parents suddenly become unemployed.

Understanding the factors that lead to homelessness is not easy considering the heterogeneity of the population and the fact that there are many pathways to homelessness. In most cases, it is the intersection of structural factors, personal histories and individual characteristics that lead to homelessness. Addressing the root causes is necessary to improve circumstances and foster stability in a person’s life.

Structural factors include the growing gap between the rich and the poor; the decrease in affordable housing supply; the decrease in services, supports and social assistance; and discrimination and racism. Personal histories and individual characteristics include catastrophic events; loss of employment; family break up; onset of mental and/or other debilitating illnesses; substance abuse by oneself or family members; a history of physical, sexual or emotional abuse; and involvement in the child welfare system.

Homelessness and poverty are inextricably linked. People who are poor are frequently unable to pay for necessities such as housing, food, childcare, health care, or education. Being poor can mean a person is one illness, one accident or one paycheck away from living on the streets.


There is an undeniable connection between domestic violence and homelessness. Battered women who live in poverty are often forced to choose between abusive relationships and homelessness. Young people who are victims of sexual, physical or psychological abuse often become homeless. As well, seniors who are experiencing abuse and neglect are increasingly at risk of homelessness.

The relationship between substance abuse and homelessness is also complex. Many people who are addicted to alcohol or drugs never become homeless, but people with low income and addictions are at increased risk of homelessness. Additionally, the rates of alcohol and drug use are disproportionately high among the homeless population.

A critical shortage of housing that is affordable, safe and stable directly contributes to homelessness.

New immigrant families continue to be especially vulnerable to poverty and the risk of homelessness. This is the result of their considerable settlement needs and difficulty in securing appropriate and affordable housing due to unavailability, low-incomes and discrimination.

People with serious mental illness typically experience more barriers to employment and are isolated from friends, family and other social networks, leaving them more vulnerable to experiencing homelessness.

The causes of homelessness for street youth are also somewhat unique. Between 40-50% of street youth report prior involvement with child welfare services and approximately 70% of homeless youth experienced physical, sexual or emotional abuse as children. Discrimination is also a factor. Young people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender are overrepresented amongst the street youth population.

The many causes of homelessness give rise to special issues of social policy at the intersection of many fields of study, including economics, medicine, community planning, child and family protection and welfare reform. The formulation of opinion on these issues demands insight into the specialized fields in which they emerge

Source: Homeless Resource Center