A Place to Put My Hat: Opening the Door on Hidden Homelessness within the GTA

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When it comes to the issue of homelessness, and more specifically the contemporary topic of hidden homelessness, not much light is shed on it. This in turn leads to more confusion and misunderstanding regarding this sensitive and pressing societal issue.

Also known as the “provisionally accommodated,” which in itself is one of the three main categories the homeless are put in (the other two being unsheltered and emergency sheltered), they are, according to the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, “people who access accommodation with no prospect of permanent housing, and are therefore still technically homeless with no permanent shelter.” This, in turn, begets the question: is the term “couchsurfing” analogous to hidden homelessness? The answer is multifaceted: the ‘yes’ emanating from the lack of permanent housing for the individual/group experiencing homelessness and is forced to spend time with either family, friends, or complete strangers. The ‘no’ is indicative of a lack of choice. Couchsurfing seems to involve willingly signing up and crashing on a stranger’s couch, usually while traveling, or when rent can’t be paid on time. This is generally a short-term endeavor, but for the hidden homeless, it can last years.

What makes hidden homelessness so tricky to qualify (to understand the sheer number of individuals who have either gone through a period of homelessness or are still provisionally accommodated) is because of how hidden they truly are. These folks don’t fall into common stereotypes of homelessness. The incredibly tragic case of Rohinie Bisesar is a formidable example of this dilemma: despite drowning in debt and constantly couchsurfing, this case doesn’t automatically spring to most people’s minds when they hear the terms “mentally ill” or “homeless.” The hidden homeless use support systems and services that help them survive, even though they themselves are experiencing a lack of safe and long-term housing. This in turn continues to perpetuate the cycle of hidden homelessness while being left out of statistics measuring traditional homelessness.

According to Stats Canada from a study published in  2016, nearly one in ten Canadians have experienced hidden homelessness. These statistics were then categorized by gender (8% of males in contrast to 7% of females) and ethnicity (those with Aboriginal ancestry or background reporting that they experienced hidden homelessness at a staggering 18%, in contrast to those of non-Aboriginal descent at 8%). But these statistics don’t offer an answer to the how and why of hidden homelessness. How did they reach this level of poverty and dependence, and why was there no intervention beforehand? Personally, I’m a firm believer in more resources and management to combat and address societal ills before they reach that breaking/tipping point.

Abused children, the disabled, recent immigrants, and victims of crime are all candidates for hidden homelessness. People are often swept under the proverbial rug, and become incapable of accessing adequate housing, employment, education, and healthcare. Shockingly, students are also quite vulnerable to the perils of hidden homelessness. Think of how many people you know who seem to live at university? In quite a few cases, they actually do, using amenities provided by their institution and taking on many low-paying, irregular jobs to make enough to feed and clothe themselves, but not enough to have a permanent address in order to uphold a facade amidst their peers. It’s a heartbreaking reality for many, and one that we should tackle. We need to understand what might drive someone away from their home, if a place that makes you feel unsafe and unwelcome could ever be called that.