Homelessness and Health in Canada: Research Lessons and Priorities

Article excerpt


This article was for prepared for an international think-tank on reducing health disparities and promoting equity for vulnerable populations. Its purposes are to provide an overview of homelessness research and to stimulate discussion on strategic directions for research. We identified studies on homelessness, with an emphasis on Canadian research. Studies were grouped by focus and design under the following topics: the scope of homelessness, the health status of homeless persons, interventions to reduce homelessness and improve health, and strategic directions for future research. Key issues include the definition of homelessness, the scope of homelessness, its heterogeneity, and competing explanations of homelessness. Homeless people suffer from higher levels of disease and the causal pathways linking homelessness and poor health are complex. Efforts to reduce homelessness and improve health have included biomedical, educational, environmental, and policy strategies. Significant research gaps and opportunities exist in these areas. Strategic research will require stakeholder and community engagement, and more rigorous methods. Priorities include achievement of consensus on measuring homelessness, health status of the homeless, development of research infrastructure, and ensuring that future initiatives can be evaluated for effectiveness.

MeSH terms: Homeless persons; vulnerable populations; poverty; health status; health behaviour; health services

Canada has long had an international reputation for high quality of life. For a growing number of Canadians, homelessness has become a grim reality and obtaining shelter part of a daily struggle.1 Research on homelessness is essential for policy-makers, program planners, service providers, and community groups. This knowledge can play an important role in public education and awareness campaigns, policy decisions, resource allocation, program development, and program or policy evaluation.2 The identification of needs and priorities for research on homelessness is, therefore, a valuable undertaking.

The two primary goals of this article are to provide an overview of previous research on homelessness and the relationship between homelessness and health (with a main focus on Canada), and to spur discussion regarding strategic directions for future research. The National Homelessness Initiative has called for a comprehensive Canadian research agenda to "lay the foundation for understanding the root causes of homelessness, support policy development and serve as a resource for accountability and reporting." Development of this agenda will require active engagement by a wide range of stakeholders, including homeless people, those at risk of becoming homeless, service providers and advocates for homeless people, government representatives, researchers and research funding agencies.


A variety of strategies were used to identify literature on homelessness that reflected diversity in both geographical and topical focus. This was deemed essential considering that many important sources of information are found in reports from government and community agencies, in addition to the peer-reviewed academic literature. This article is not a comprehensive review of the literature on homelessness in Canada, but rather an effort to frame the different types and areas of research for the purpose of developing future work.

An initial search strategy involved the use of electronic databases, including major social sciences, health and humanities databases. A second strategy sought out examples of literature from government, community, advocacy and service websites. Examples of homelessness research, program descriptions and policy documents were collected. Canadian literature was the primary target of these searches, but review papers from international sources were also included for comparison purposes and to provide additional examples of interventions. …