There are thousands of homeless people in Québec. They are women and men who live in extreme conditions, without a roof over their heads or in squalid housing, for instance. Frequently marginalized and scorned, they are often not considered full citizens in a society that is one of the richest in the world.
Yet every day, this unacceptable situation is tolerated. This tolerance of the situation has become the social norm, in which, at best, people feel compassion for the homeless during periods of extreme cold. This tolerance also feeds preconceived notions about homelessness. For instance, the belief that it is an inevitable phenomenon and that there will always be homeless people regardless of the efforts made to help them.
Another common prejudice is that homeless people are responsible for their situation, and that living on the street is a personal choice. In most cases, the street is the culmination of a life trajectory peppered with difficulties and painful and challenging failures. No one chooses to be homeless.
Who are the homeless?
Adult males are the largest group of homeless people. Men are particularly present in shelters and refuges. Their lives are profoundly scarred by various factors, for example:
- Life on the street
- Addiction to alcohol, drugs or gambling
- Mental illnesses
- Sexually transmissible and blood-borne infections (STBBI)
- Multiple losses, such as successive loss of employment or bereavements
An ever increasing number of women are homeless. Nonetheless, their presence on the street is less noticeable. They have some of the same factors as men, but homeless women often have a tough history of violence (sexual assault and psychological, physical, domestic or family violence).
These women develop strategies to avoid living on the street. These survival strategies, such as prostitution or shoplifting, make them less visible but involve risks to their health, safety and dignity, pushing them deeper into the process of homelessness.
In order to avoid the street, some women go from shelter to shelter or from the house of one friend or acquaintance to another. This hidden homelessness conceals the extent of homelessness among women, even though it is a growing phenomenon.
Homelessness among street youths begins early in their lives. Their presence on the street and in other public places is increasingly noticeable. Factors that explain their presence on the street include:
- Family and sexual violence
- Neglect experienced during childhood or adolescence
- Repetitive stays in protection and rehabilitation services for youths in trouble of adaptation or foster families during childhood
- Running away from home repeatedly
- Family breakups, such as parents separating
- Mental disorders
- Drug addiction
- Dropping out of school
Homeless youth have often dropped out of school early and fail to find anything other than difficult and very precarious jobs. Drug use particularly exposes these youths to contracting the hepatitis C virus and, in rare cases, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). A quarter of homeless youths have engaged in prostitution. The number of youths with a sexually transmissible and blood-borne infection (STBBI) is 10 times higher in those who are homeless.
Some families can end up homeless, but this is rare in Québec.
Certain family events, such as divorce, domestic violence, bankruptcy or recent immigration, along with the difficulty of finding an appropriate-sized, affordable, safe and clean house, increase the risk of families ending up without shelter.
Many social workers and researchers tend to label homeless people as senior when they are 50 years old and up.
Homeless people aged 50 years and up have often experienced periods of homelessness or have grown old on the street. However, an increasing number of people this age are experiencing homelessness for the first time in their lives.
Most of these people are in poor physical, psychological or cognitive health. They have aged prematurely, and their mortality rate is three to four times higher than the general population.
Homeless people aged 50 and up are particularly vulnerable financially and socially. They are often looked upon as victims and are mistreated, isolated and ignored. They are not accepted in institutions that could otherwise be of help to them. Homeless people aged 50 and up are invisible to most of the population, who misunderstand the realities of this group.
Most homeless people in Québec were born in the province. However, the phenomenon is growing among immigrants, especially among youth and women. The number of immigrants who are in a precarious financial situation and who do not have citizenship or are awaiting papers is on the rise at resources where health care is offered.
Immigrants face the same homelessness risk factors as the general population. However, their recent arrival in Québec or their belonging to an ethnic minority presents other difficulties, which compound these risk factors. These difficulties include:
- Not knowing the language
- Being discriminated against
- Cultural or social habits that make it difficult for them to integrate
- Low income
Upon their arrival in Québec, immigrants with a low income are more at risk of living in overcrowded and squalid housing. Also, it may take some time to establish a social network, which makes them even more vulnerable. Female immigrants who have escaped environments in which they were victims of violence and abuse are especially at risk of one day finding themselves on the street.
Homelessness among First Nations and Inuit populations
An increasing number of individuals from First Nations and Inuit people are ending up a part of the homeless population.
Some individuals leave their communities to live, or spend an indefinite amount of time, in urban areas. They have different reasons for doing so, including:
- To study
- To have access to health care
- To escape the lack of opportunities for the future in their community
- To escape specific issues
Some characteristics of the community itself can also cause a person to leave, such as overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and lack of housing.
In urban areas, many aboriginals experience an identity and culture shock caused by the anonymity and the absence of a community life similar to where they come from. This renders them vulnerable to urban realities and increases their risk of living in poverty.
In urban centres, aboriginals also face new challenges conducive to vagrancy or homelessness, for instance:
- Being cut off from their social environment and isolation
- Losing their bearings regarding, among other things, the language spoken, food, culture and identity
Last update: February 28, 2019