People don’t choose to be homeless, and they don’t prefer living in shelters or couch surfing with friends to having a permanent home.
Homelessness arises because of several factors. Many of them are outside of a person’s control, like the state of the economy, a lack of affordable housing, or the absence of system supports to help them after they graduate from foster care or leave the hospital.
Social isolation, substance misuse issues, financial problems, or personal trauma like the onset of mental illness or an abusive relationship, may also contribute to people’s experience of homelessness.
In the case of youth aged 13 to 24, family breakdown is a major contributing factor to homelessness, and many can’t choose to return to the family home because they don’t have one.
Another contributing factor is leaving foster care and the child welfare system, known as Children’s Services in Alberta. In a Calgary Youth, Health and Street Study, 62% of participants said their family had interacted with child intervention services, and of those, over half (52%) said the contact resulted in them being placed in care. Support into adulthood does exist – at the age of 18, youth may enter into an agreement with Children’s Services for support services, as well as financial services. However, each agreement is based on individual circumstances and taking the steps to apply for it can be difficult for youth with complex challenges.
The pathways in and out of homelessness are complex. That’s why Calgary’s approach to homelessness aims to meet people where they are at and to provide flexible programs to address their unique needs.
To learn more about the paths towards homelessness, please visit our page.
Myth 2: People experiencing homelessness just need to find a job
People experiencing homelessness spend most of their time and resources trying to improve their lives, including looking for work.
Studies show that people want to work. In a 2018 Point-in-Time Count (the “PiT Count”) of individuals experiencing homelessness in Calgary on a particular night, many reported they had moved to the city to find a job or to start a job they’d already obtained.
But the barriers are high when you don’t have a home. Experiencing homeless makes you less competitive in the job market and deprives you of a permanent address to give to an employer, a place to shower, money to afford clean clothes, and access to a computer to find a job.
Even if people have part-time or full-time work, they may still experience homelessness because of a lack of affordable housing. In Calgary, economic growth has attracted migration to the city, driving up the prices of rental accommodation and houses.
The challenge of job-hunting while experiencing homelessness is even greater for youth. Many have never had the opportunity to become self-sufficient – for example, learning to pay bills or grocery shop – and many have never had the chance to complete high school, which prevents them from gaining meaningful employment.
They may also have a deep history of adverse childhood experiences, or traumatizing events occurring before the age of 18 that lead to toxic stress. This can have a profound effect on brain development, which can create challenges in finding employment later on in life.
Myth 3: Only people who sleep rough are experiencing homelessness
Sleeping rough means not having a permanent home and not accessing emergency shelters. It includes living in public places like parks or in places not intended for human habitation, such as cars or tents.
The problem with this myth is that it makes certain groups invisible. Many believe that youth and women are unaffected by homelessness, because they rarely see them on the street.
Yet, nationally, young people aged 13 to 24 make up roughly 20% of the homeless population. In Calgary, young people formed roughly 18% of the homeless population, according to the 2018 PiT Count; meanwhile, women composed 25%.
The homelessness of youth and women is hidden, because both groups tend to avoid shelters and sleeping rough and will often couch surf or stay with others in precarious situations. For LGBTQ2S+ youth in particular, systemic cissexism, heterosexism, and homophobic and transphobic discrimination, as well as violence in shelters, means they avoid services at a much higher rate than the general homeless population.
You can read more about who experiences homelessness here.
Myth 4: All people experiencing homelessness are dealing with substance misuse issues
While the rate of drug and alcohol use is higher among those experiencing homelessness than the general population, research indicates that only 38% of people use alcohol, and even fewer (26%) use other types of drugs.
Substance use is only one of several factors that can put a person at risk of losing their housing. However, drugs and alcohol are never the sole cause of homelessness. After all, lots of people use substances, but don’t experience homelessness.
The experience of homelessness itself may also contribute to a person’s use of substances. The stress of trying to survive without permanent shelter may lead people to turn to alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism.
You can read more about the connection between homelessness and addiction here.
Myth 5: All people experiencing homelessness are criminals
The most vulnerable among us are more likely to be victims of crime than to be the perpetrators of it. Studies show that people who experience homelessness are subjected to higher levels of physical violence. Women are also the frequent target of sexual assault.
While the homeless population does have more interactions with the criminal justice system, it is usually because the activities related to their daily survival have been criminalized. According to this research paper, people experiencing homelessness are more likely to be fined or to be arrested for minor offences like loitering, trespassing or shoplifting for food.
The situation is worse for young people, aged 13 to 24, experiencing homelessness:
Youth who are involved in criminal activity tend do so out of necessity or to cope with the harsh reality of homelessness. Researcher Stephen Baron found that youth commit theft or sell drugs to obtain food, clothes, and shelter or to support an addiction they developed on the streets.
For more information about youth homelessness and crime, you can also read more about Stephen Baron’s research here.
Myth 6: Building permanent supportive housing will decrease the property value in my neighbourhood
Permanent supportive housing means an apartment building that is home to people who need income assistance and 24/7 support to keep them healthy and safe.
In many cities, Calgary included, there is a reluctance to welcome permanent supportive housing for our most vulnerable citizens into neighbourhoods. Lots of us think that supportive housing is a good addition to our society, but we don’t want it near our own community. We call this characterization “NIMBYism”, an acronym for “Not In My Back Yard.”
One reason that underlies NIMBYism is the belief that permanent supportive housing will lower the property value of the surrounding houses in the neighbourhood. In a March 2020 online survey by Stone-Olafson, 51% of the 606 Calgarians surveyed expressed this concern.
But, according to Calgary-specific research, this isn’t the case! Our housing partner, HomeSpace, builds, owns and manages a portfolio of permanent supportive housing buildings throughout the city that provide Calgarians with a home and 24/7 supports from a homeless-serving agency. Researcher Avison Young looked at the prices of residential properties in close proximity to two of their buildings and found no negative impact on residential property values.
Myth 7: Providing permanent supportive housing will make people dependent on the system
People who live in permanent supportive housing are required to pay rent according to a rate based on their income level (typically 30%). Some also pay rent at the market rate to help CHF’s partners subsidize those who need more help. And if it is appropriate, agency supports can help a resident live independently over time.
It is true that some people who experience homelessness may never be able to pay market rent or to live independently, because of personal issues such as chronic health challenges.
However, permanent supportive housing encourages people to become self-sufficient, and individuals generally enjoy the autonomy that comes with being able to be live independently. With their basic needs taken care of, people are freed from operating in “survival mode” and can focus on other aspects of improving their quality of life.
Myth 8: Housing people is a waste of taxpayer money
Placing people in permanent supportive housing reduces their use of expensive public systems, such as hospitals, jails and emergency rooms.
In a study examining Housing First programs funded by Calgary Homeless Foundation, researchers concluded thatevery $1 spent on housing results in $1.17 – $2.84 of return on investment in Alberta’s public system. High system users cost the public system an average of $87,000 per year. Once a person is housed, however, that cost drops to $30,500 per year.
In short, keeping someone in homelessness costs our public system an awful lot more than finding them a home!
Myth 9: There is plenty of housing available – people just need to access it
It can often seem like Calgary is awash in new houses and shiny rental units. However, the reality is we lack affordable housing, or housing that suits the needs of low and moderate-income households and that costs less than those generally found on the market.
Calgary’s non-market housing supply sits at 3.6 per cent, which is considerably lower than the 6 per cent national average for other large Canadian cities. To match the affordable housing stock of other cities, Calgary would need to build 22,000 units by 2025. As a result, the amount of housing available to our most vulnerable citizens is much smaller than it seems.
Calgary Homeless Foundation
Rocky Mountain Plaza
Suite 1500, 615 Macleod Trail SE
Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2G 4T8