Canadian Observatory on Homelessness Press: Understanding mothers experiencing homelessness


Understanding mothers experiencing homelessness: A gendered approach to finding solutions for family homelessness, a report by Katrina Milaney, Kaylee Ramage, Xiao Yang Fang and Marilyn Louis for the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness Press, examines social experiences for mothers and children who are experiencing homelessness, in two shelters and one housing program in Calgary, Alberta.

Currently, much of the research on homelessness and what works for supporting individuals into sustainable housing comes from research on the single, adult, male population.  This study provides evidence to better understand how families become homeless, and the experiences of mothers and children as they move within various public systems while dealing with a history of violence, trauma, and poverty.

The authors note, “While there is research to show the pathways and risk factors faced by women and families, there is limited longitudinal research in the homelessness literature on solutions…..there is a need to develop evidence-based approaches reflective of gendered experiences of homelessness to support lone parent women and their children into sustainable change and opportunities for healthy futures.”

The report looks at:

  • Pathways to Homelessness: 
    •  “…including immigration issues, lack of social supports and living with low-to-no income.  Having and supporting children, especially when leaving an abusive situation to keep their children safe, was also identified as a trigger for homelessness.  Violence was a key initiating factor into homelessness and into other pathways….”
  • Barriers to Stability:
    • Structural:  including lack of available affordable housing, low levels of formal education, long wait times for necessary documentation and immigration, challenges with the child welfare system and the risk of losing their children, and difficulty in setting up necessary supports for children with disabilities.
    • Lack of information:  “Many women felt trapped in homelessness because of the multiple systems they had to navigate to deal with each ‘issue’” e.g. difficulty proving immigration status, finding where to access the proper paperwork, finding out how to apply for subsidized housing, how to access health care, and navigating the court systems to get child support.
    • Experiences accessing supports: including accessing childcare to enable the mother to access education or work opportunities; accessing trauma-informed support.
  • Resiliency:
    • including the gratitude women felt for the support and services they had received in shelters and elsewhere, and the community that developed amongst families in short-term housing.
  • Hopes and Dreams:
    • These were very important to women.  Many of the interviewees were focused on getting their own home and getting a job or going back to school.  They also expressed desires for their children to be healthy and access education, “finish school, go to college and become independent and self-reliant adults who did not have to face the same issues they had to.”

The report concludes with several recommendations, developed from an asset- or strength-based approach, to reduce structural barriers, bridge gaps between public systems, increase access and availability of supports and ensure cultural supports and trauma-informed care is at the root of interventions for vulnerable women and children.

Recommendations come under the following categories:

  • Expand & enhance the continuum of care to support families: 
    • “A finding of particular importance in this study is the structural issue associated with immigration status; there is a need for a continuum of care where families from low to high acuity can receive appropriate and tailored supports that promote empowerment and sustainability”  e.g. formalized partnerships between shelters and immigration/settlement agencies.
  • Promote strong social networks for women, including peer support: 
    • “Inclusion of peers who have been successful in prevention and intervention programs could be an important first step in helping vulnerable and victimized women to build healthy networks and relationships.”
  • Recognize the complexity of family homelessness and focus on culture and trauma: 
    • “Many of the women did not become homeless because of a single issue.  They were often dealing with complex issues related to being a single parent, mental health issues, underlying poverty, multiple systems interactions and historical trauma.  In addition, many of the women had experienced multiple forms of violence, sometimes at the hands of authority figures….More research is needed to develop a framework for cultured and trauma-informed care that is reflective of diverse and multiple experiences.  However, one place to start is to recognize the deep and profoundly difficult pathways into homelessness for women and children and to acknowledge that provision of housing without recognition of cultural experiences and in isolation of supports for trauma, is not likely to lead to a sustainable end to homelessness for these families.”
  •  Scan the eligibility criteria and data collection approaches for affordable housing: 
    • All of the women interviewed experienced multiple barriers to accessing affordable housing.  “Many cited a lack of information, long wait lists or unclear rules about eligibility.”  The authors recommend cities perform current capacity gaps analysis to make evidence-informed decisions about how to fill gaps and ensure the available housing is going to people who need it the most.
  •  Increase efforts to prevent family violence: 
    • The authors state, “Recognizing and preventing family violence is an upstream mechanism for preventing family homelessness.”