CM: Housing and Homelessness: Terminology and Word Choices
By Brett Lambert
The realm of housing, shelters, and homelessness is complex and varied. Someone unfamiliar to the housing sector may understandably be confused by some of the terminology and the meaning behind it. We have created this glossary list to help readers better understand the issues that are discussed in more detail within this issue of Community Matters.
The Canadian Observatory on Homelessness defines homelessness as “the situation of an individual, family, or community without stable, safe, permanent, appropriate housing, or the immediate prospect means and ability of acquiring it.” (1)
Homelessness can span a spectrum of experiences and circumstances. It can describe someone who is unsheltered (i.e. living on the streets or in places not intended for human habitation), emergency sheltered (i.e. staying in an overnight homeless shelter or shelters for those fleeing domestic or family violence), provisionally accommodated (i.e. accommodations are temporary or lack security of tenure, such as “couch surfing”), or at risk of homelessness (i.e. they are not currently homeless, but their financial or housing situation is precarious or does not meet public health and safety standards).
For those experiencing homelessness, their situation tends to be fluid where their shelter arrangements can change and shift quite dramatically.
Precarious and inadequate housing not only relates to household income and the structure of the dwelling, but also a lack of access to necessary supports and opportunities, including employment, health care, clean water and sanitation, schools, childcare, and others.
Indigenous Peoples and Homelessness
The Canadian Observatory on Homelessness’ Indigenous definition of homelessness, developed by Jesse Thistle, considers the traumas Indigenous Peoples have experienced linked to colonialism. While homelessness experienced among First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Peoples is a condition where they lack stable, permanent, and appropriate housing, it goes beyond lacking a physical structure of habitation. It also acknowledges Indigenous worldviews, since being in a state of homelessness deprives an Indigenous person from culturally, spiritually, emotionally, or physically reconnecting with their Indigenous identity or lost relationships. (2)
Indigenous Peoples are overrepresented amongst Canadians experiencing homelessness. Within Edmonton, among the 2,745 people currently experiencing homelessness, as of July 2022 according to Homeward Trust’s Edmonton Homelessness Dashboard, 58% of them identify as Indigenous. (3)
Homelessness for Indigenous Peoples is intrinsically linked to historical and ongoing settler colonization and racism that have displaced First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Peoples from traditional lands as well as social and cultural systems. This has created and prolonged Indigenous homelessness.
Power of Language
Homeless vs. Houseless terminology and word usage
For years, homeless or homelessness has been the standard term used by governments to describe people living without stable or permanent shelter. However, in recent years there has been a shift to move away from this term in favour of houselessness or unhoused.
The reason for this shift is partly because of the meanings linked to the words “house” and “home.” A house refers to a physical structure meant for human habitation while a home can encompass more than a structure built on a physical location as it is tied to a community with social connections. Using “unhoused” or “houseless” acknowledges that while someone may lack a socially accepted physical structure to live in, they still have a social connection with the wider community. (4)
In addition, the term “homeless” can be linked to stigma and can be framed in such a way as to demonize those without housing as dangerous to society. (5) Fundamentally, this shift in terminology seeks to be more respectful when describing people who live without a fixed address.
While there may not yet be widespread agreement regarding the terms, as the updated Associated Press Stylebook does describe homeless as “generally acceptable” to use as an adjective, (6) the respect and dignity of those experiencing housing insecurity is a top priority. For this issue, we will prioritize using “unhoused” or “houseless” terminology.
Person First Language
When referring to people who are without shelter, person-first language is important. For this issue, they will be described as a “person experiencing homelessness” instead of a “homeless person.” This is done as a reminder that their condition does not define them and that they are first and foremost a human being.
It is important to emphasize that there is a broad range of experiences when it comes to people who are unhoused or without shelter. While the general public might think of homelessness primarily as people sleeping rough on the streets or within an encampment, there are also hidden components of houselessness. This includes those who “couch surf” temporarily with friends or family or the working houseless who live in their vehicles. Living without shelter generally is not a choice, and the experience is incredibly challenging.
Core Housing Need
According to criteria set out by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), a household is considered to be in core housing need if at least one of the following conditions is not met. (7)
Adequate: the dwelling is not requiring any major repairs, such as excessive mold, inadequate heating or water supply, or significant structural damage.
Affordable: shelters costs (e.g. rent and utilities) are below 30% of total before-tax household income.
Suitable: there are enough bedrooms for the size and composition of the household members.
Types of Affordable Housing and Shelters
There are many housing and shelter options that exist within the public, private, or not-for-profit sector. Below are some of the most common types of housing geared to low-income households:
Supportive housing provides a permanent home and on-site supports (e.g. medical assistance, counselling) for people who need assistance to live independently. This could include people exiting homelessness, people who are elderly or who have disabilities, addictions, or mental illness. Investing in permanent supportive housing has been a priority for the City of Edmonton in their strategy to end chronic homelessness. New permanent supportive housing units were approved by City Council in 2020 in King Edward Park, Inglewood, Terrace Heights, and McArthur/Wellington and are expected to be completed this year. (8)
Emergency housing provides temporary shelter and accommodations for certain vulnerable groups. These can include those experiencing homelessness and those fleeing domestic violence or abuse. Some examples of emergency housing within Edmonton include women’s shelters such as WIN House, Wings of Providence, and Women’s Emergency Accommodation Centre (WEAC). Shelters that serve the unhoused are operated by a number of organizations, which include The Mustard Seed and Hope Mission.
Non-profit housing provides rental housing to low- and moderate-income individuals. They are typically built by the province, a municipality, or a community group. Tenants pay rent that is geared to their income and other tenants pay rent that is at the lower level of the private market rent. Civida (formerly Capital Region Housing) is the largest provider of social housing and near market and market homes within the Edmonton Metropolitan Region. This is separate from market housing, which is privately owned housing with prices set by the private market.
Co-operative housing provides housing for people with low and moderate incomes, representing a middle ground between renting and owning a home. Members of a co-operative collectively own the development with shelter payments going towards the upkeep of the building. Members contribute to the governance of the co-op. The cost of housing is geared to a percentage of income for some residents while the rest pay market rates. According to the Northern Alberta Co-operative Housing Association, there are 41 co-operative developments in Edmonton and the surrounding areas. (9)
Bridge housing is a continuum of housing that’s between emergency and permanent housing. These short-term accommodations bridge the gap between homelessness and permanent housing. On-site supports are offered to individuals as they work with outreach workers to secure permanent housing. Residents typically stay in bridge housing for an average of 30 to 90 days. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Homeward Trust Edmonton has set up bridge housing in five locations in partnership with Boyle Street Community Services, Niginan Housing Ventures, and Jasper Place Wellness Centre. Some of these locations have since stopped taking intakes. (10)
Housing first refers to providing people experiencing homelessness with independent and permanent housing as a first step. There are no preconditions or compliance requirements to being admitted into housing first programs. Once the person is provided housing, other supports such as mental health or addictions can be addressed once the housing situation is resolved. (11)
Spectrum of Homelessness Experiences
Precariously housed or housing insecurity refers to people who are at risk of losing their housing. They are facing severe affordability problems when it comes to maintaining their housing. They may risk losing housing in the immediate or near future. Those who manage to maintain their housing often do so at the expense of meeting their nutritional needs, heating their homes, and other expenses that contribute to their health and well-being. (1)
Temporarily homeless refers to people who are without accommodation for a relatively short time period. This could happen due to the result of a natural disaster like a fire or a flood or through changes to a person’s living situation like a separation or divorce. They tend to be re-housed within a short period of time. (12)
Cyclically homeless refers to people who have lost their housing due to a change in their situation, such as a job loss, a hospital stay, or a prison term. Those who use safehouses such as women fleeing family violence or runaway youths are also part of this group. (12)
Chronically homeless (13) refers to people who have been homeless for at least a year, or repeatedly over the course of several months or years and often have complex and long-term health conditions such as addictions or mental illness. (13)
Adequate housing re-envisions “housing” beyond a physical space that has four walls and a roof, and this concept is recognized in international human rights law. Instead, it “should be seen as the right to live somewhere in security, peace, and dignity.” There are 7 criteria that must be met (at a minimum) for housing to be deemed adequate, which are as follows: Security of ownership/tenancy; availability of services, materials, facilities, and infrastructure; affordability; habitability; accessibility; location; and cultural adequacy. (14)
Note: This is an excerpt from our September 2022 Community Matters, you can read the full publication here
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- Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (2017). Canadian Definition of Homelessness. Retrieved from: https://www.homelesshub.ca/resource/canadian-definition-homelessness
- Thistle, J. Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (2017). Definition of Indigenous Homelessness in Canada. Retrieved from: https://homelesshub.ca/IndigenousHomelessness
- Homeward Trust Edmonton [n.d.]. Edmonton Homelessness Dashboard. Retrieved from: https://homewardtrust.ca/data-analytics-reporting/
- Hunt, K. (2019). Why Do we Say “Houseless”? Retreived from: https://dogoodmultnomah.org/blog/why-do-we-say-houseless
- Slayton, N. (2021). Time to Retire the Word ‘Homeless’ and Opt for ‘Houseless’ or ‘Unhoused’ Instead? Retrieved from: https://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/homeless-unhoused
- Perlman, M. (2020). 2020 AP Stylebook changes: Person-first language, and the great ‘pled’ debate. Retrieved from: https://www.cjr.org/language_corner/2020-ap-stylebook-changes.php
- Statistics Canada (2017). Core housing need. Retrieved from: https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/ref/dict/households-menage037-eng.cfm
- CTV News Edmonton (2020). City votes to sell land to Homeward Trust to build housing to help end homelessness. Retrieved from: https://edmonton.ctvnews.ca/city-votes-to-sell-land-to-homeward-trust-to-build-housing-to-help-end-homelessness-1.5004981
- Northern Alberta Co-operative Housing Association [n.d.]. Housing Cooperatives: Contact Sheet. Retrieved from: https://nacha.ca/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/2022-02-Housing_Co-operatives_Contact_Sheet.pdf
- Homeward Trust Edmonton [n.d.]. Bridge Housing. Retrieved from: https://homewardtrust.ca/bridge-housing/
- Canadian Observatory on Homelessness [n.d.]. Housing First. Retrieved from: https://www.homelesshub.ca/about-homelessness/homelessness-101/housing-first
- Casavant, L. Library of Parliament (1999). Definition of Homelessness. Retrieved from: https://publications.gc.ca/Collection-R/LoPBdP/modules/prb99-1-homelessness/definition-e.htm
- National Alliance to End Homelessness [n.d.] Chronically Homeless. Retrieved from: https://endhomelessness.org/homelessness-in-america/who-experiences-homelessness/chronically-homeless/
- Reference: The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. (2009). “The Right to Adequate Housing”. Fact Sheet No. 21, Rev 1. Retrieved from: https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/Documents/Publications/FS21_rev_1_Housing_en.pdf