Budget 2021: Gains and gaps for women experiencing homelessness

April 21, 2021

Budget Analysis BlogAll across Canada many women, girls, and gender diverse people continue to live in insecure or unsafe housing due to inequity and discrimination. In the Canadian context, these groups experience disproportionate levels of core housing need and poverty. There is a severe lack of affordable and appropriate housing that meets the needs of diverse women and women-led families. COVID-19 has further created unique circumstances, with women bearing the burden of severe income loss and care responsibilities, all impacting housing outcomes for women.

Budget 2021 offers promising investments to address homelessness, gender-based violence and core housing needs through key initiatives such as the expansion of the rapid housing program and investments in shelter spaces and transitional houses for women and children fleeing violence. The historic investment in childcare and a federal $15 minimum wage are greatly welcomed, as we recognize these to be critical initiatives in addressing poverty and income insecurity which disproportionately burden women and gender-diverse folks. 

While the Women’s National Housing and Homelessness Network is hopeful for the breadth of funding initiatives being introduced, we are ultimately concerned that this budget will fall short of addressing the gaps that invisibilize women and gender-diverse people experiencing homelessness and core housing need.

Here are some key highlights:

Rapid-Housing Initiative (RHI)

Budget 2021 will expand the RHI with a $1.5B investment and allocate at least 25% of the funding to women-focused housing projects. This investment offers a promising path forward that has the potential to lift thousands out of homelessness. 

If this investment is to meaningfully address women’s homelessness, the allocation of 25% (and beyond) to women-focused housing projects must prioritize and maintain a focus on hidden homelessnes. Hidden homelessness is the most common form of homelessness experienced by women and girls. It is well recognized that women are more likely to rely on relational, precarious, and dangerous supports to survive housing instability, and are less likely to appear in mainstream shelters, drop in spaces, public spaces, or other homeless-specific services.

Furthermore, to align this investment to provide long-term housing options for women and children fleeing violence, provision and coordination of wrap-around supports for complex needs must be prioritized as well. 

Our research clearly indicates that women’s homelessness is structurally created and maintained. To address women’s homelessness in meaningful ways, the government must coordinate structural responses that focus on closing gaps for the most vulnerable.  

Notably, prior to the budgetary launch, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities had requested that the RHI be expanded to $7B to begin adequately addressing core housing need and chronic homelessness across Canada — a much greater investment than the $1.5B announced in Budget 2021. At the municipal level, many, including Mayor Naheed Nenshi of Calgary, say that the current figure is unsuitable to end chronic homelessness.

Reaching Home

Reaching Home is the federal government’s flagship homelessness program and the federal government has doubled their funding for Reaching Home through the pandemic, a significant step towards addressing unprecedented challenges posed by COVID-19. 

The $567 million in new funding to Reaching Home is a greatly welcomed investment which can facilitate critical responses to address women’s and gender-diverse homelessness in Canada.

While the allocations are not yet known, it is critical to note that the current definition of chronic homelessness employed by Reaching Home has been critiqued for failing to account for the ways in which women experience homelessness. In particular, definitions of chronic homelessness tend to focus on so-called “visible” homelessness (e.g. “sleeping rough,” staying in accommodations generally considered unsuitable for habitation, or staying in emergency shelters), whereas women and gender diverse people are significantly more likely to experience “hidden” homelessness (e.g. staying with friends and family, “couch surfing,” trading sex for access to housing, staying in motels or hotels, or living in overcrowded and unsafe accommodations). This failure to capture the experiences of women within federal definitions of chronic homelessness results in inequitable investments for women who are homelessness and contributes to severe gaps in supports, services, and emergency housing. 

Closing the gaps for women and gender-diverse people experiencing homelessness Reaching Home must expand and nuance its definition of chronic homelessness to account for gendered experiences. 

Canada Housing Benefit (CHB)

Budget 2021 also contains a critical investment of $315.4 million to CHB, to increase direct financial assistance for low-income women and children fleeing violence to help with their rent payments. 

At current levels, the level of support offered through the Canada Housing Benefit is severely inadequate to meet the deep core housing need many women and women-led families find themselves in. Women disproportionately carry the burden and cost of caring for children,  while also working on-average lower-paying jobs and receiving less money for the same job. Over the past year, the pandemic has further exposed precarity of women-held jobs and the disproportionate burden of poverty and income-insecurity impacting women and women-led families.

The Canada Housing Benefit would be a much more effective housing intervention for women if it were an entitlement-based benefit that was provided based on need. 

Further, barriers to accessing benefits must be removed: current research indicates that many women do not access benefits they are otherwise entitled to. While the reasons for this vary, complicated and hard-to-navigate online systems, unclear criteria for qualification, and invasive questions are among the barriers faced by women and gender diverse people in trying to access necessary programs and benefits. 

Budget 2021 includes specific updates to the federal Disability Benefit to ensure people who are entitled to benefits can access them — in fact, Budget 2021 will provide a vital $11.9 million to reforming available disability programs and benefits to make them better meet the needs of communities. Budget 2021 highlights the need for the administration of federal disability benefits to be fair, transparent, and accessible: similar consideration must be given to CHB and other housing-related supports, in order to ensure available supports, benefits, and funding can be easily accessed by the women and gender-diverse people who need them. 

No Urban Indigenous Housing Strategy

Perhaps the most glaring gap in an otherwise ambitious budget is the absence of an Urban Indigenous Housing strategy. Over 40% of Indigenous peoples live in urban centres and they are dramatically overrepresented in homelessness. In many urban centres, over 40% of women experiencing homelessness are Indigenous

Violence experienced by Indigenous women is intertwined with experiences of homelessness and housing insecurity. Together with the greatly welcomed $2.2 billion to end the national tragedy of missing & murdered Indigenous women and girls, a well-resourced and distinct Urban housing strategy could have addressed deep fault lines leading to experiences of violence among Indigenous women, girls and gender-diverse people. 

Financialization of Rental Housing and Rights-Based Approach to Housing

The loss of affordable housing units across Canada due to financialization of rental housing, compounded by loss of income during the pandemic, is increasingly making women vulnerable to evictions and leading them into core housing need and loss of housing. 

In 2019, Canada passed the National Housing Strategy (NHS) Act, which enshrined the progressive realization of the right to housing in Canada. International law requires states to use the maximum available resources, over time, to meet their housing obligations while prioritizing those in greatest need.

While a non-resident vacancy tax is a step in the right direction, Canada’s commitment to a rights-based approach must prioritize protection of existing affordable housing stock, stronger policies around eviction prevention and ensure affordability metrics employed in all NHS programs actually reflect the depth of poverty and core housing need that many women, girls, and gender diverse people experience in Canada. 

Current definitions of affordability and the lack of focus on deep affordability continues to exclude women and gender-diverse people experiencing core housing need and poverty. Without such measures, the net impact on eradicating core housing needs and homelessness will be undermined.  

As of now, Budget 2021 and the National Housing Strategy together make important progress on the progressive realization of the right to housing, but do not meet the standard set out in international law. 

Lack of intersectional focus on 2SLGBTQIA

Importantly, funding for housing in Budget 2021 neglects to make explicit reference to 2SLGBTQIA communities, focusing instead on access to housing for women writ large. This omission further marginalizes Queer women and gender diverse people. Under the subsection, “Supporting Greater Equality for LGBTQ2 Communities”, the budget proposes a mere $15M (over three years) allocated to issues facing 2SLGBTQIA communities — including vast issues like mental health and employment support. 

Expanding support for both mental health and employment services can serve as a preventative measure for homelessness, which 2SLGBTQIA people — especially youth — are disproportionately more likely to face. We need to see similar intersectionality in housing investments, and the current lack of firm intersectional commitments to housing in Budget 2021 belie the progressive messages woven throughout.

Conclusion: Where do we go from here?

Women experiencing homelessness are not a monolithic group: they have diverse lived realities, and subsequently navigate systems in structures in different ways. It is well-established that colonization, white supremacy, ableism, and cis-heteropatriarchy compound experiences of homelessness. For many, this means having one’s needs and experiences rendered invisible to the very system that claims to offer help. Budget 2021 offers glimpses into support for diverse communities, but lacks a cohesive vision to adequately address the multiple systemic factors that lead to their oppression and continued overrepresentation in populations experiencing homelessness.

COVID-19 has seen an unprecedented rise in the number of Canadians facing housing insecurity, and the current investments in housing will not go far enough to mitigate the housing crisis in Canada. For pandemic recovery, deep financial commitments to building, repairing, and securing housing are critical. Housing is a universal right, and one that touches all other aspects of life for Canadians. In the homelessness sector, we also know that ending homelessness means explicitly committing funding to marginalized populations, whose unique needs are routinely under-recognized, and who are therefore underserved. Ultimately, focusing on a “she-cession” reinforces binaric views of how gender operates as a societal barrier, and obscures the realities of multiply marginalized women and gender diverse people who are most impacted by the economic and social fallout resulting from COVID-19. 

Overall, Budget 2021 builds on the National Housing Strategy and takes some important steps toward ending homelessness, but it does not go far enough. Lack of clear understanding of women’s unique housing needs and circumstances, compounded and derailed by gaps in strategic direction will hold long-term repercussions for women and gender diverse people experiencing homelessness. 

Through nimble and innovative community responses, ending homelessness for women, girls, and gender diverse people is within our reach. Budget 2021 offers opportunities to lay the foundation for a future without homelessness: to accomplish this, we must look towards building opportunities for cross-sector collaboration, and always seek to stand in solidarity with those who join us in this effort.