One of the challenges in understanding homelessness and responding to it is that it is often framed as an urban, inner-city issue. There are several important reasons for this, including the fact that it is often in large cities where big investments have been made in homelessness infrastructure, including the building of shelters, drop-ins, housing etc. Additionally, the vast majority of the Canadian population lives within two hundred kilometers of the American border.
However, the factors that lead to homelessness exist not only in big cities, but can also be found in rural areas, small town and areas of Northern Canada. This includes inadequate housing, poverty, discrimination, violence and substance misuse. At the same time, these areas typically lack the resources – and in some cases the will – to invest in infrastructure and services that may prevent or reduce the worst outcomes of homelessness.
Several factors make homelessness in the North a more complex issue. First, there is a lack of infrastructure and services to prevent or reduce the worst outcomes of homelessness (this is also true for rural communities). Second, the degree of poverty in the North means that there are increased pressures on individuals, families and communities. Third, the cold experienced during the winter makes the possibility of surviving without shelter impossible.
As a result, when people in rural areas or northern communities face homelessness, they may choose to temporarily stay with friends or relatives, or in some cases endure unbearable situations (including abuse or living in poverty), and thus become part of the “hidden homeless” population. A lack of services and supports means that many are otherwise forced to leave their community and move to a larger urban area in order to access services. This may mean escaping one set of problems, but can lead to many others. Rural and northern homelessness present important challenges for those who seek to end homelessness. Currently, there is a need for more research in this area.