Women’s Experience Of Homelessness: What Are We Missing?

A woman sits on a park bench, typing on a computer. Her clothing and shoes are visible, but the woman within them is not visible.
Invisible woman on a computer photo by bluesbby is licensed under CC BY 2.0
An invisible victim of domestic violence sits on a park bench, not terribly poor, but terribly homeless. You don't see her because she's adept at hiding. She has to be.

A colleague of mine always asks two questions: what are we missing and who is being left out? These questions are especially important in an era where funders and program managers who live by “what gets measured gets done.”

The Women’s National Housing and Homelessness Network recently completed research about women’s experience of homelessness in Canada. The Network has published a report of its findings, which amply demonstrate illustrate the significance of my colleague’s questions.

To the first question, we are missing the ways that women experience homelessness. They are less visible for a number of reasons. Women who are visible (for example living outside or staying at an emergency shelter) experience very high levels of violence and sexual assault. Choosing to stay with a violent partner means less exposure to violence than being on the street. Women are also strongly motivated to be invisible in order to maintain custody of their children.

And to the second, we are leaving out all of the women who experience homelessness by being invisible. In effect, the issue is hidden in plain sight.

Going beyond those questions, the report also demonstrates that our efforts to help women experiencing homelessness aren’t working very well. This is partly because we don’t understand its extent and also because we can’t see its far reaching effects.

The researchers highlight eight priority actions to improve our understanding of women’s experience of homelessness and change our efforts to be more effective. It repeatedly highlights the need for adequate housing that is affordable, permanent and safe.

Compiling and analysing the available evidence was a huge effort. The project team is to be commended for making this effort, which should help us to do a better job of helping women who are experiencing homelessness, and ultimately ending it entirely. The methods used may be of interest to decision makers, researchers and policy leaders in other countries.

The authors have delivered their findings at four levels of detail, ranging from 1 to 280 pages. All four are available at Women’s National Housing and Homelessness Network: The State Of Women’s Housing Need & Homelessness In Canada

The 19 page Executive Summary is here: Executive Summary

The Network’s efforts have already attracted the attention of mainstream media. See at Global News: A study says Canada’s homeless women are ‘invisible.’ COVID-19 could make it worse