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Literature Review: Aboriginal peoples and Homelessness

January 1997


Mary Ann Beavis, Nancy Klos, Tom Carter and Christian Douchant
Institute of Urban Studies - The University of Winnipeg


Profile of the Aboriginal Population

The Aboriginal Peoples Survey (APS) undertaken by Statistics Canada in 1991 revealed that there were more than one million Canadians of Aboriginal origin, 3.8% of the Canadian population.

The Aboriginal population illustrates considerable differences when compared to the non-Aboriginal population, including higher birth and death rates, shorter life expectancies, a higher proportion of lone-parent families, lower levels of education and income, and higher unemployment and poverty levels.

Aboriginal households are also more likely to be renters, and their housing is generally in poorer condition than the general population.

The Extent of the Literature

There is very little literature that addresses the issue of Aboriginal homelessness in Canada per se. Other bodies of literature that may be relevant are: the general literature on homelessness in Canada; the research of Aboriginal socio-economic conditions and housing; the literature on urban Aboriginals and street youth; the literature on Aboriginal health issues; and the research on the Aboriginal "skid row" lifestyle.

Definitions of Homelessness

Homelessness can be divided into three categories: situational (or temporary) homelessness; episodic homelessness; and chronic (long-term) homelessness.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the ranks of the homeless are growing in number and diversity. Homelessness is caused by both "personal" and "structural" factors, including family problems; addiction; poor health; landlord-tenant conflict; the "lure of adventure"; unemployment; low pay; condemnation/demolition of rental units; release from jail and deinstitutionalisation. Aboriginal persons in Canada suffer acutely from all these "causes" or "sources" of homelessness.

Risk Factors in Aboriginal Homelessness

Not all people who experience the problems listed above become homeless. However, the evidence suggests that the factors below result in many Aboriginals being "at risk" of becoming homeless.

Socio-economic factors, including high unemployment, welfare dependency and extreme poverty, with single-parent families, large families and women hardest hit by these adverse economic circumstances.

Poor housing and severely depressed conditions on reserve and in remote communities, which lead to rural-urban migration in search of jobs, education and better housing, but leaves Aboriginals vulnerable to poverty, depression, addiction and crime. Continued attachment of urban Aboriginals to reserves may result in hypermobility, regular alternation between city (winter) and reserve (summer), necessitating regular searches for urban accommodation.

Racism and discrimination is a theme that recurs in the literature, although the extent and seriousness of discrimination is hard to measure.

Substance, domestic and sexual abuse are frequently cited risk factors for homelessness. Substance abuse and addiction figure in descriptions of all segments of the Aboriginal homeless population. Eight out of ten Aboriginal women have suffered family violence and research by the Canadian Council on Social Development (1984) found "high incidence of family violence, sexual assault and incest in many Native communities" among women and runaway youth.

Physical and mental health problems can lead to homelessness, and Aboriginal health status remains significantly poorer than that of the non-Aboriginal population. The socio-economic marginalization and abuse factors noted above contribute to higher incidences of physical and mental health problems among Aboriginal people.

Who Are the Aboriginal Homeless?

Numbers and geographical distribution. In general, the research that has been done on the extent of homelessness in Canada does not take ethnicity into account. Homelessness, however, appears to be endemic in the Aboriginal population, urban and rural, on and off reserve. Virtually all the research to date has been done in Canadian Western cities, although the literature indicates that there are also large numbers of Aboriginal homeless in Eastern cities like Toronto and Montreal.

At-risk Populations

Families, youth, women and elders. Although no research has been done specifically on homelessness among Aboriginal families, there are data to suggest that urban Aboriginal families exhibit distinctive features that place them in the "at risk" population. Several studies indicate that the majority of runaways and street youth in Prairie cities are Aboriginal, with more females than males. The abuse suffered by women in Aboriginal society has been noted above. Elders are a segment of the Aboriginal population that has been virtually overlooked by the literature, but the diminishing role and importance of the extended family may leave them "at risk."

Skid row residents and ex-offenders. The literature reveals that a large majority of "skid row" residents with entrenched lifestyles of crime, alcohol, drug abuse and homelessness are Aboriginal. There appears to be no literature regarding the housing problems of Aboriginal ex-offenders, a group that is clearly vulnerable to homelessness.

Addressing Aboriginal Homelessness

Solutions are multi-dimensional. More affordable housing alone will not solve the Aboriginal homeless problem. Community development which provides jobs and empowers individuals, self government which may assist Aboriginals to address their own needs, reduced discrimination in the housing and labour markets, and culturally appropriate programs and services must also be part of the solution.

Next Steps

As very little research has focused specifically on Aboriginal homelessness, an ongoing research program is required. General theme areas are outlined below.

Developing a better profile of the homeless population. Attempting to "count" and characterize the number of homeless Aboriginal people in Canada is probably an unrealistic objective given the time and cost involved. A better strategy to develop a more complete profile may be to work with agencies that provide services to the homeless and "at risk" populations.

Focusing on causes. Determining the extent of discrimination through "fair housing audits," looking more closely at the relationship to the nature and extent of abuse, the role of housingmarket circumstances, and the relationship to physical and mental health problems are all useful areas of research. These causes may not be unique to the Aboriginal population, but some may play a more important role in causing homelessness among Aboriginal people.

The appropriateness of current services. There is very little research on the appropriateness of existing services. Are they culturally appropriate? Does the philosophy of shelters create barriers for the Aboriginal homeless? Is there a role for traditional healing techniques? Will self-government help Aboriginal people to address their homeless? These are only a few of the questions that could be the focus for additional research.

It may be that many of these questions can be answered by working closely with service agencies.


Aboriginal homelessness has many features in common with homelessness in the general population, but it also has several distinctive features (e.g., rural-urban migration, racism and discrimination, "Third World" on-reserve housing). Similarly, many of the same strategies are recommended to address both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal homelessness. However, the literature indicates that the Aboriginal homeless have special needs (e.g., cultural appropriateness, self determination, traditional healing techniques).

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Last updated June 16, 1998
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