Poverty in Québec, Part 1: the state of chronic homelessness in Canada’s largest cities

This series will shed light on poverty in Quebec and Montreal. Today, Alison Smith asks why the state of chronic homelessness in Canada’s four largest cities – Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal – is so similar.

The article is also available in French.


The ten Canadian provinces vary significantly in their social policies, including political efforts to reduce poverty, build affordable or social housing. There have been significant efforts to fight poverty and build social housing in Quebec, more so than in other Canadian provinces (though BC has also been very active in the area of social and affordable housing). Social assistance benefit levels, however, are very similar in Quebec to what they are in other Canadian provinces.

Despite these differences between provincial interventions in housing and poverty, the state of chronic homelessness in Canada’s four largest cities – Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montréal – is remarkably similar.

Why is this the case? As the following articles will explain, the answer lies in part in a close look how the profile of poverty has changed throughout Quebec in the past ten years. While families, particularly families with children, have benefited from provincial efforts to reduce poverty, single people have not fared so well. In fact, poverty has increased among single people since 2003.

This is the first in a three-part series on poverty in Québec; this first post will present what we know about chronic homelessness in Canada’s four largest cities. The second post will compare social assistance rates in Québec with those offered in other provinces. The final post will look at provincial efforts to reduce poverty, notably the law against poverty and the subsequent provincial plans to reduce poverty, and will consider the effect these provincial actions have had on the profile of poverty in Quebec.

The state of homelessness in Canadian cities

The state of chronic homelessness in Montréal is very similar to what it is in other big Canadian cities.

The table below presents the results of the most recent Point-in-Time homeless counts in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montréal. The first set of numbers (Total and Ratio (total)) presents the overall results of the homeless counts, which can be compared across the four cities by looking specifically at the ratio of homelessness as it relates to the overall population of the city. The first two numbers show fairly significant differences; there seems to be more homelessness in Vancouver and Calgary than there is in Montreal and Toronto.

Table 1: Homelessness in Canadian Cities

Table 1

This first comparison, though interesting, is problematic; each city used a slightly different methodology and, importantly, definition of homelessness. As a previous article on this subject and recent article in the European Journal of Homelessness explains, these differences affect who is counted as homeless and therefore means the side-by-side comparability of the results is somewhat problematic.

A better way of comparing homelessness in the four big cities is to look at the level of chronic homelessness, defined as anyone who has been homeless for one year or more.

The Point-in-Time methodology has limits, such as its ability to measure hidden homelessness. It is recognized in Canada and around the world, however, as providing an accurate estimation of chronic homelessness; people who are chronically homeless are more likely to be “counted” using the Point-in-Time methodology than those who experience episodic or transitional homelessness.

Table 2: Chronic homelessness in Canadian cities

Table 2

The reports for each of these counts provide a detailed breakdown of the results, including the length of time that people have been homeless. This allows us to look just at chronic homelessness, which for the purposes of this article is the most accurate measure for comparing homelessness.

When we compare the level of chronic homelessness in each of the four cities, we see that they are very similar.

The second set of numbers (Chronic and Ratio (chronic)) show that the level of homelessness is very similar across the four cities. It is clear that there is less chronic homelessness in Montréal than there is in other cities, but the ratio is overall highly comparable.

The results of the counts, which relate to chronic homelessness, are interesting. In Vancouver, 45% of the people who were found to be experiencing homelessness in Vancouver were chronically homeless; whereas in Montréal, 60% of the people who were found on the night of the count were chronically homeless. In other words, there are more people who are cyclically or transitionally homeless in Vancouver (and Calgary) than there are in Montreal (and Toronto).

This is an interesting finding; one way of understanding this difference in the make-up of the homeless population (as identified at a particular point in time) is by understanding differences in provincial social policies. Research comparing homelessness in Denmark and New York has found that the majority of people who experience homelessness in Copenhagen are chronically homeless and suffer from a number of barriers to housing, such as addictions and mental health problems. In New York, poverty is the main cause for the majority of the homeless population.

This is a profound statement on the welfare state.

Denmark’s welfare state is often said to be of the “social-democratic” model; social policies and benefits tend to be universal, there is a high threshold of poverty and taxes are highly redistributive. There are, of course, problems with the Danish welfare state, including its difficulty adapting to massive migration throughout Europe. But the welfare state is generally very strong and effective. In New York, and throughout the United States, the welfare state is “liberal”. Social policies and benefits are highly targeted, the threshold for poverty is very low (people on social assistance benefits, for example, live well below the poverty line, no matter which definition of poverty is used), and taxes are not very redistributive.

This has implications for the profile of homelessness. In Denmark and Copenhagen, the welfare state is so strong that people do not fall into homelessness because of poverty.

In New York, poverty is one of if not the leading cause of homelessness; the welfare state is so weak and patchy that it does not effectively protect poor people from the social risk of homelessness.

Some might say we see a similar trend, though less exaggerated, in Canada. It is fair to say that in Alberta, throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the dominant social policy was “get a job” (according to Donna Wood’s chapter in the book Welfare Reform in Canada). For many in Alberta, and Calgary in particular, the social safety net was not strong enough to keep them from falling into homelessness. Even in 2014, in Calgary and in Vancouver, more than half of those found on the night of a homeless count were not chronically homeless. One might assume that their homelessness was transitional or episodic; research and the expertise from community groups emphasizes that for these people who experience homelessness for a short period of time, poverty is a main driver of homelessness.

In Quebec, where the government has invested much more in housing and poverty reduction, fewer people experience homelessness for a short amount of time. One might conclude that this is because the welfare state is better able to protect people from falling into homelessness.

Investments in housing and poverty reduction, combined with a lower cost of living (especially relating to housing) have meant that people are not as likely to fall into homelessness simply because of poverty in Montreal.

Chronic homelessness

When we look just at those experiencing chronic homelessness, however, the numbers become much more comparable. In other words, there are very similar levels of chronic homelessness in all four cities. What explains the similar level of homelessness across these very different cities? Provincial social policies and interventions vary greatly across these four provinces, as has been noted above. Québec and BC have built more affordable and social housing than other provinces, for example, and Québec in particularly has been very active in the area of poverty.

Yet it is clear that, despite these differences, there is a significant gap in the safety net in each of the provinces. The most obvious manifestation of this gap is chronic homelessness.

According to experts from the community milieu, chronic homelessness is a very specific and complex social problem, and responding effectively to it necessitates a targeted, skilled, specific intervention. Up until very recently, provincial governments, despite efforts to reduce poverty, have not responded effectively to the specific issue of chronic homelessness. Thus, despite the differences in social policies, chronic homelessness is very stable across the country. The next two blogs explore these gaps in the social safety net in greater detail, first looking at social assistance benefit levels and secondly looking at the specific poverty reduction efforts in Québec.

Tomorrow, we will publish the second article in the series, regarding social assistance in Canadian provinces.

Download the full series in PDF:  Poverty in Quebec.

Alison Smith is a PhD Candidate at l’Université de Montréal. Her research is about homelessness in Canada.

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