Most of us have become accustomed to seeing the homeless on our streets. What surprises us is the unprecedented rise in the number of those without a place to call home. Twenty years ago, the problem of homelessness seemed minor and was thought to be about single men with alcohol problems living on the streets. Today, in almost every urban centre across Canada, the situation is changing, and conservative estimates are that there are some 200,000 Canadians – men, women and children – who are homeless.
Indeed, the fastest growing segments among the homeless are young people under age 18 and families with children. A recent task force report indicated that 46 percent of those using Toronto’s hostels in 1996 were families and that 5,300 children lived in hostels in that year.
Fewer and fewer low-cost rental units, the withdrawal of federal and provincial support for social housing and the rise in poverty among single-parent families headed by women have contributed to the rising statistics. Indeed, research has shown that single mothers head 37 percent of homeless families.
A study has shown that one-third of the homeless are people living with mental illness; for example, 75 percent of homeless single women suffer from a mental disorder. Many of those on the street with mental illness or addictions are homeless because they have been discharged from hospitals or jails without proper community resources. There are few adequate plans to support their reintegration into community life once discharged from institutions. In addition, drug-use, alcohol and gambling addictions contribute to persons becoming or remaining homeless.
With crisis centres overcrowded, people are ending up on the streets. In Toronto each night, some 50,00 homeless people seek shelter, but only 4,500 will find space for the night. Those unable to find a bed will turn to abandoned buildings, alleys and parks. The consequences of living on the streets are ultimately dying from exposure, illness, violence or suicide. Increasing numbers of people with HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, hepatitis, sexually transmitted diseases and communicable infections are being recorded in the homeless population. For instance, among Toronto’s homeless, the TB infection rate is 38 percent.
Lack of a place to call home means that a psychological and emotional struggle for physical survival becomes one’s principal goal. With no home address, it is difficult to get a permanent job or to access some social or health services. Homelessness divorces the individual from the patterns of day-to-day life. The longer a person remains homeless, the greater the likelihood of suffering serious and long-term mental and physical health problems.