Lack of affordable housing and employment opportunities are top causes of homelessness according to new report

Edmonton, AB - A follow-up study estimates that almost half of all people requesting social services in rural Alberta are experiencing housing insecurity (907 out of 1,894). When family and friends living with them are included, the number more than doubles to 2,143, including 276 who are children under 18. 

Funded in part by Reaching Home, the Government of Canada’s official homelessness strategy, the Rural Development Network partnered with local service providers in 24 Alberta communities to determine the housing and service needs of their residents. Over 30-day periods throughout Fall 2020, partner organizations surveyed clients about their housing conditions and the kinds of services they need and receive.

A high percentage (71%) of respondents were unemployed, and four of the most common reasons given for housing instability were economic – even for respondents who were employed. Medical conditions like illness, disability, or addictions that prevented respondents from working were four other common reasons for housing instability.

COVID-19 was another one of the reasons given, which suggests that vulnerable populations are being impacted in a significant way by the pandemic.

“In many rural communities, people cannot find affordable, appropriate housing, so they end up living in crowded and/or unhygienic conditions,” said Dee Ann Benard, Executive Director of the Rural Development Network. “The pandemic means these living conditions are even more dangerous, as people cannot self isolate or practice proper sanitation to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

The Canadian Observatory on Homelessness is the largest national research institute devoted to homelessness in Canada. Their definition of homelessness includes living conditions that aren’t permanent, reliable, and safe, like couch surfing, living in vehicles, or living in buildings without heat or water. 

"Rural areas are unique in that we often discover those who are experiencing 'hidden homelessness'" says Scott Travis, Director of Research at the RDN. "In a small community without services, people instead rely on couch-surfing, vehicles, or staying in overcrowded housing for shelter. If they are forced to leave their community and travel to the city, they become far more expensive to house and are put at-risk of harm without their familial support network". 

The participation of local service providers was an attempt to include individuals who may not be as visibly homeless as those who are completely unsheltered. According to the data collected for this survey, almost 2/3 of the homeless would not have been located and counted if a traditional Point-in-Time (PiT) count had been used.

Data highlights over 24 communities:

  • Roughly ⅔ of respondents were women
  • Roughly half (908) of the respondents were identified to be living in unstably housed conditions
  • When asked why they felt that their housing situation was unstable, most respondents claimed it was due to a lack of money, unaffordable rent, and struggles due to mental health issues
  • Over 87% of respondents who were identified as being unstably housed did not stay in or use any shelter services
  • Over 769 dependents have been identified as possibly living in unstable housing conditions. This number is 960 for additional adults
  • Most of the respondents that have been identified as being unstably housed are unemployed
  • Most survey respondents identified that their highest level of completed education were: a high school diploma or GED, a college certificate or diploma, or some high school
  • For unstably housed respondents, the most commonly cited sources of income were: GST refunds, Child and Family Tax Benefits, or some form of employment
  • Most survey respondents visited local services agencies to receive help with Basic Needs, obtaining Support Services, or for Financial Support
  • Most respondents said their communities do not provide enough affordable housing, social opportunities, and employment opportunities

Survey results will be used to develop strategies to fill gaps in services for each participating community. Similar projects in the future will be used to improve services by measuring effectiveness over time.

View the provincial report as well as the 24 individual communities' reports on the RDN's website.

About RDN: The Rural Development Network (RDN) is a not-for-profit partnership of five Alberta post-secondary institutions dedicated to addressing key issues in rural communities at a local level. RDN supports the sustainability of rural communities by amplifying the "rural voice.” RDN collaborates to identify and bring focus to rural issues, build local capacity, and find innovative, rural-based solutions to unique issues.


Julia Juco