University of Calgary

Homelessness conference

A national dialogue begins

Conference concludes homelessness is solvable—with everyone’s help


Richard Wagamese, one of Canada's foremost Native writers, was a keynote speaker at the conference. / Photo: Ken Bendiktsen

Richard Wagamese, one of Canada's foremost Native writers, was a keynote speaker at the conference.
/ Photo: Ken Bendiktsen
By John R. Graham and Jeannette Waegemakers Schiff

Homelessness affects people of all ages and walks of life, and for many Canadians, its threat is only a paycheque or two away from reality.

In order to address the surge in homelessness and housing-related issues facing Canadians, the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Calgary recently hosted Growing Home: Housing and Homelessness in Canada.

This second national conference attracted over 650 attendees from a broad spectrum of backgrounds.

We learned six things from this national dialogue.

First, there are a lot of homeless people in Canada—between 150,000 to 300,000—and up to five times more who are invisible, doubled up or “couch surfing.” Various governments commit between $4 and $6 billion yearly to support those on the streets. In comparison, the recently-announced national commitment to new social housing is only $2 billion.

Next, the major causes of homelessness are two-fold. There are structural issues that can increase the risk of homelessness, including threats to income such as a rise in unemployment; low assistance levels for those with disabilities and seniors; lack of social housing and rent supports; insufficient affordable housing; and too many precarious jobs.

Then there are events in a person’s life that under the worst circumstances may lead to homelessness. These personal triggers include such crises as marital or relationship breakdown, family violence, death of a spouse, mounting debts or eviction.

Third, “homelessness” is a people-made problem, coinciding with decreases in social service programs, the discharge of many thousands out of mental health facilities and into the community, and broad structures of retrenchment and downloading from national to provincial to municipal governments and ultimately to civil society. Ultimately, the solutions to homelessness are also going to be people-made.

Fourth, there are solutions to the crisis of homelessness. If the proper supports are in place, and the appropriate accommodations secured, 80 percent or more who are homeless can successfully transition to stable housing.

Fifth, new forms of political activism and consciousness-raising are needed: community cafes where all those interested can discuss and debate the issues, more involvement of non-experts, and tearing down artificial silos through the use of Internet opportunities such as Wikis, blogs and Facebook.

Finally, one of the most striking moments at the conference was the dissolving of roles, titles, and assumptions—so much so that by mid-conference, it was difficult to tell the difference between a homeless person, an academic, a senior government person, a politician, or a business community member. Everyone worked together, generating ideas and learning from each other’s valuable perspectives.

The consensus? Homelessness is solvable but it will take all of us to make it happen.

John R. Graham and Jeannette Waegemakers Schiff are professors at the Faculty of Social Work and co-organizers of Growing Home: Housing and Homelessness in Canada .