A Closer Look at Canada’s Homelessness Crisis

Posted on

Amid plummeting temperatures and rising costs, the homelessness crisis in Canada is at a critical point. Organizations like Archway Community Services and the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness are providing help and hope. 

Exploring Canada's Homelessness Crisis This Winter

The new year is underway, and as the Manager of Social Justice, Seniors and Housing at Archway Community Services in Abbotsford, British Columbia, Megan Capp has got her work cut out for her. As the province faces a record-breaking cold snap, her team is busy organizing warming centres to protect folks from the frigid temperatures. While some parts of the country might not consider -10 or -15 degrees Celsius as cold, for a place accustomed to B.C.’s usual mild winters, it cuts like a knife.

Established in 1969, Archway is among numerous non-profits nationwide dedicated to supporting their community and neighbouring areas amidst Canada’s escalating homelessness crisis.

Archway Community Services' Montvue Shelter provides supportive housing to it's residents in need
Image: Archway Community Services’ Montvue Shelter provides supportive housing in Abbotsford, BC

Capp, in her decade-long role, notes a significant rise in people living on the streets, at rest stops, parks, and other areas. Unlike before, the crisis now includes more people, both those experiencing homelessness for the first time and those moving from other areas. This makes it difficult to keep up with the escalating numbers.

“When I started doing this work, there was kind of a core group of people who had lived on the street for a very long time – the outreach workers and advocates knew who they were, knew what their needs were,” she adds. 

“Now what we’re seeing is this huge influx of numbers, not only from people who are falling into homelessness for the first time…but also people coming in from other municipalities. So the numbers are just increasing at a pace that we are not able to keep up with.”

The crisis has grown over the past two years particularly, she says, “and (it’s) continuing to get worse.”

Archway Community Services provides supportive housing to it's residents in need - Hearthstone Place
Image: Archway Community Services’ Hearthstone Place provides low-barrier housing that supports those who have been homeless or are at risk of homelessness.

Surges in Homelessness: A Growing Concern

The 2023 Fraser Valley Regional District (FVRD) Point-in-Time (PiT) Homeless Count and Survey Regional report align with what Capp observes on the ground. Conducted on March 7-8, it found 1,094 homeless individuals—a 22% increase since 2020 and a significant 216% jump since 2014. 

In Abbotsford alone, the count identified 406 individuals, up from 333 in 2020. The report underscores a rise in homelessness surpassing the increase in available shelter beds. These challenges are nationwide. In Toronto, Fred Victor reports an all-time high of over 9,000 homeless people on any given night.

“The need is great. Our shelters are over capacity every night, and the need for food far exceeds what we can provide,” says Marie MacCormack, Vice President of Philanthropy and Communications at Fred Victor, in a news release. 

Understanding homelessness is challenging; Statistics Canada distinguishes between “absolute homelessness” and “hidden homelessness.” Pre-pandemic, an estimated 235,000 people annually experienced homelessness in Canada, but Tim Richter, President and CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, notes an explosive increase, potentially reaching 300,000 a year.

“We’re seeing 40 percent increases in chronic homelessness in some communities just since the beginning of the pandemic, and this is driven largely by the cost of living.”

What’s Fueling the Homeless Crisis?

Homelessness can affect anyone, anywhere, anytime. According to Statistics Canada, ‘Indigenous households (29.5 percent) were almost three times as likely to have experienced some form of homelessness compared to the total population,’ with recent shelter counts finding ’35 percent of respondents identify as Indigenous.’

While reasons like financial challenges, domestic abuse, and health issues are cited, Richter notes it stems from policy decisions. He adds, ‘Homelessness like we see today hasn’t always existed.’ In the 1980s and 90s, the government reduced funding for affordable housing, leading to program cuts and transferring responsibility to provinces.

“Homelessness is really a housing problem. It’s not caused by mental illness. It’s not caused by addiction. It’s not caused by any sort of individual fault or failure. If you boil it right down, it’s caused by the high cost of rent and lack of vacancy,” Richter says.

Comparing the situation to a game of musical chairs, he asks, “Was there something to do with the kids that resulted in them not winning the game? Or is the problem that there are not enough chairs?”
“It’s the same thing in housing. And (with) the lack of housing, it’s harder and harder for people to compete. And so you tend to see people with disabilities, people who are struggling with addiction, mental illness, other things, who end up getting forced out of the housing system, simply because there’s not enough housing of the right kind that’s affordable.”

Tim Richter, President and CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness speaking at their 2023 Annual Conference in Halifax
Image: Tim Richter, President and CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness speaks at their 2023 Annual Conference in Halifax.

“Multiple compounding crises,” Richter adds, like the pandemic, the skyrocketing cost of living and a toxic drug supply, has made the situation much more challenging, pushing it to a critical peak. To put it in perspective, “Now, homelessness is at the same scale as Canada’s largest natural disasters, in terms of the loss of housing, the cost and the impact on people,” he says.

“Responding to that are largely charities. So charities are coming in and responding where governments and public systems have failed.”

Impacts of Homelessness on Mental Health

Charities like Archway Community Services support struggling communities through shelters like “Mom & Wayne’s Place,” named after a late Abbotsford resident. They offer supportive housing, health services, social supports, and the Homeless Prevention Program providing rent supplements for those at risk of homelessness.

Charities have limits, and needs often surpass capacity. Living unhoused exacerbates mental health issues, impacting both individuals and those working with vulnerable populations.

“Homelessness will compound and deteriorate mental health and addiction. Because recovery is not possible when you’re living in survival mode…But if you think about frontline workers as well, what we see is just so much grief and stress and hopelessness,” Richter says. 

“The workforce has been terribly battered. A lot of people working in ending homelessness aren’t too far off homelessness themselves…you’re seeing huge amounts of burnout, stress, problematic psychological impacts on people and huge amounts of turnover.”

Homelessness Crisis in Canada

The Solvable Problem: A Call to Action

Ultimately, Richter states that homelessness is a “solvable problem.” Providing more housing that is affordable and specifically designed for renting, along with well-coordinated efforts at the local level, can remedy it.

“I’m in Calgary and in 2013, we had this huge flood and 75,000 households were forced out of their homes due to the flood, many temporarily – but nobody’s still homeless as a result of that. We need that same kind of effort…I call homelessness an unnatural disaster. It’s solvable in a lot of the same ways that we would respond to a natural disaster, whether it’s fire or flood or famine. The only difference really is the mechanism of the loss of housing,” he says. 

Fortunately, he notes that charities and organizations are making progress under challenging circumstances. While ending homelessness requires policy change, supporting frontline organizations is crucial, and every contribution matters.

“They need those gifts no matter how modest they may be. Everything helps.”

Collaboration across organizations, sectors, and communities is key, according to Capp. She urges people to understand local efforts, recommending aligning with existing organizations to make a meaningful impact, saying

“This issue is complex, and to make an impact that reduces homelessness, we need a holistic, systems-wide and systems-connected approach. We require a lot of various interventions at different levels, ranging from childhood all the way up to seniors. We just need to think about this in a bigger-picture, more complex way than we often do.” 

Contributions of any size are crucial for frontline organizations. Get involved with charities addressing homelessness at its roots, including advocating for government-level changes. With empathy, kindness, and generosity, collective efforts can bring about positive change in our communities.


Take Action!

Discover organizations providing support to individuals and families experiencing homelessness in Canada by providing food, supportive housing, emergency shelter, advocacy, mental health support, and other essential resources.

Learn more about the important work of Archway Community Services and the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness


Share This Page

  Share your giving story!

Want to share your insights and be featured on the Giving Life Blog?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.