Not just an urban phenomenon

Teya Greenberg

Reprinted from "Housing and Homelessness" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 4 (1), pp. 10-12

For those of us living in big cities, the sight of people panhandling for change, binning for empty bottles and sleeping on sidewalks has become all too common. Though a large portion of the actual urban homeless population isn't on the streets,1 this is the face of homelessness and poverty that we see in the "big city."

There is another face of homelessness - the face of rural homelessness. It exists in almost every small community in the province.2 But in contrast to urban centres, smaller communities generally lack visible signs of homelessness.

According to one researcher, homeless people remain unseen in smaller communities because there are fewer services for them. Because of this, there are fewer opportunities for the homeless to visibly gather together. This same researcher also states there is simply a lack of tolerance for visible homelessness in small communities.3

Instead of sleeping on the sidewalks and gathering in front of a shelter or soup kitchen, homeless people in smaller communities are in the bush in tents or campers. They're sleeping under bridges or on the edge of people's properties. They're "couch surfing" with family or friends and, most often, they're behind closed doors in a house that is rundown, unsafe and bad for their health.

A closer look in BC: Small communities; large problem

At the Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division (CMHA BC), we recently completed two small research initiatives on homelessness in small BC communities.4-5 This research adds to what we've been learning from our one-year Income/Homeless Outreach Project that has outreach workers engaging with, and providing services to, homeless people in eight communities throughout the province.

As part of this research, we talked to front-line workers in 27 small BC communities about the needs and numbers of homeless people in their area. These front-line workers included those in shelters, food banks and social assistance offices. We also interviewed mental health workers and members of the RCMP.

Responses in 25 of the 27 communities surveyed indicated that homelessness was an issue in their town. In fact, three of the smallest communities - 100 Mile House (pop. 1,885), Lillooet (pop. 2,324), and Port Hardy (pop. 3,822) - all said there were 30 to 40 homeless people in their communities. These numbers tell us what people in small BC communities know too well: extreme poverty and homelessness is not just an urban phenomenon.

Small communities: 'Known' people; few landowners

In many ways, homeless populations in small communities don't differ much from those in urban centres. Situations of homelessness are still rooted in experiences of poverty, colonization and trauma; there is still the same overrepresentation of First Nations people; landlords still discriminate against First Nations people, youth and people on income assistance.

There are, however, issues and barriers that are unique to small communities. One of the biggest differences between being homeless in a large urban centre and being homeless in a small community is the number of housing options that are available. Small communities have fewer housing options.

A major challenge, identified in the research noted above and in one-on-one interviews with landlords and property managers, is that homeless people have difficulty getting housing in small BC communities because they're 'known.' Many have "burned their bridges" - that is, have ruined their relationships - with landlords in town.

We also found that, in some instances, just one or two property management companies or landlords own most of the real estate in the town.

This combination of 'known' people and only a few landowners results in a situation where people who are ready to make changes in their lives have very few housing options.

Community-specific barriers

Small communities may have different challenges, depending on their size, location and geography (e.g., climate). In some communities:

  • Transportation is a huge issue, because there is either no public transportation or poor public transportation between town and the places where low-cost housing exists.

  • For tourism-focused areas, seasonal evictions are an issue; low-income motel/hotel tenants are evicted so landlords can raise their rates to capitalize on the influx of tourists.

  • When there isn't a local welfare office, applying for income assistance - which is sometimes necessary to pay rent - is difficult for people who are facing multiple barriers. Income assistance applications can be very challenging to complete, and people don't get the same kind of personalized service applying through a call centre as they might in person.

  • Municipalities either don't have any regulations or don't have the ability to enforce regulations requiring landlords to do regular upkeep on their low-income suites.

  • All of these factors contribute to the largest underlying problem: a lack of accessible, secure, affordable housing.

City-Country: Similar problems; similar solutions

While the face of homelessness and the issues and barriers faced by homeless people may differ in communities, both small and large, the need to address these issues is the same.

Renowned advocate David Hulchanski, Director of the Centre for Urban and Community Studies at the University of Toronto, writes, "Homelessness is not just a housing problem, [but] it is always a housing problem."6 So, while solutions to homelessness must centre on the provision of actual affordable housing units, these units must also be strengthened with a variety of supports and services. And these supports must be accessible and relevant to the people needing them.

Here are six recommendations we heard consistently from people across the province:

  • Increase the number of supported housing units (i.e., affordable housing with staff that provide assistance to residents).

  • Increase funding for First Nations' support workers. First Nations people are highly over-represented among the homeless population, and it is best practice to have First Nations workers providing support to First Nations people.

  • Increase municipal government action against landlords who do not do regular upkeep on their housing units.

  • Increase the income assistance shelter allowance and reform policies on direct-to-landlord rent payment and on earning exemptions.7-8

  • Develop housing support services throughout the province.

  • Increase addiction treatment options and mental health and addictions outreach services.

See CMHA's Income Outreach Project for more information.

About the author

Teya is the Coordinator for the Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division, Income/Homeless Outreach Project.

  1. Unseen urban homeless include, for example: women and youth who trade sex or sell drugs to have a safe bed for the night; recent immigrants or refugee families doubled or tripled up in small apartments; indigenous people staying with friends or relatives; and so on.

  2. Neither this article, nor the research it’s based on addresses homelessness on First Nation reserves or in communities with populations less than 1,500 people

  3. Cloke, P., Milbourne, P. & Widdowfield, R. (2001). Interconnecting housing, homelessness and rurality: From local authority homelessness officers in England and Wales. Journal of Rural Studies, 17, 99-111.

  4. Greenberg, T. (2007). Estimates of numbers and needs of homeless people with severe addiction or mental illness in small BC communities. Vancouver: Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division. www.cmha.bc.ca/advocacy.

  5. Greenberg, T. (2007). Pathways into and out of homelessness in small BC communities. Vancouver: Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division. www.cmha.bc.ca/advocacy.

  6. Hulchanski, J.D. (2000). A new Canadian pastime? Counting homeless people. Toronto: University of Toronto http://intraspec.ca/2000_Hulchanski_Counting-Homeless-People.pdf.

  7. Current Ministry of Employment and Income Assistance (MEIA) legislation allows shelter cheques to be directly administered to a landlord or housing provider; however, rent payment direct to a landlord is subject to client choice and can be revoked at a client request. While care needs to be taken to ensure that unscrupulous landlords do not have direct access to rent cheques, regulations governing rent payment direct to landlord need to be strengthened.

  8. Earning exemptions refer to income generated by a MEIA client that is not deducted from their income assistance cheque. In 2002, legislative changes removed earning exemptions for individuals on regular assistance.