Introduction: Family Violence and Homelessness: A Review of the Literature


This is a review of the literature, published between 1987 and 2002, on the relationship between family violence and homelessness. It focuses on:

  • the dynamics of the relationship between the two conditions,
  • the implications for service providers, and
  • the gaps in research on this issue.

Terminology and Definitions

Family Violence

For the purpose of this paper, family violence is understood to be interpersonal abuse of individuals in relationships of kinship, intimacy, dependency or trust – the parameters specified for the Family Violence Initiative of the Government of Canada. It can take a number of forms in addition to physical assault, such as intimidation, psychological or emotional abuse, sexualized abuse, neglect, deprivation and financial exploitation. So the term encompasses various forms of abuse within a range of intimate relationships, including those between parent and child; caregiver and client; adult child and parent; siblings; and intimate partners in dating, marital or common law relationships.

Categories of Homelessness

The literature contains references to several categories of homelessness. However, the parameters distinguishing those categories are not entirely clear. We can begin with descriptions of two categories of homelessness used by the United Nations (Charette 1991):

  • Absolute, literal or visible homelessness applies to people living "on the street" with no physical shelter of their own, e.g., sleeping in temporary shelters or in locations not meant for human habitation (also known as "sleeping rough").
  • Relative, hidden or concealed homelessness applies to people living in spaces that do not meet minimum standards. That is, they lack adequate protection from the elements, access to safe water and sanitation, secure tenure, personal safety, affordability and access to employment, education, and health care.

The above definition of absolute homelessness (a condition in which people must sleep in emergency shelter facilities or in places unfit for human habitation, such as abandoned buildings, vehicles, doorways, parks or tents) is widely accepted. There is less consensus, however, regarding the parameters of relative homelessness. For example, in northern Canadian communities where there are no shelters as such, and where the climate can make sleeping rough life-threatening, homelessness is reflected in extreme overcrowding (Pauktuutit Inuit Women's Association 1994).

Relative or hidden homelessness is more commonly experienced by women and youth than by men (Kappel Ramji Consulting Group 2002; Novac 2002).

"Hidden homelessness includes insecure living arrangements in which women are temporarily staying with friends or family, or with a male acquaintance, for shelter; and those living in households where they are subject to family conflict or violence but lack alternative housing. It also includes situations of 'housing poverty' where women are paying such a high proportion of their income for housing that they cannot afford the other necessities of life; those at imminent risk of eviction; and those living in illegal or physically unsafe units and buildings, or over-crowded households" (Novac 2002, 101-2).

Given that the UN has defined relative homelessness as the use of residential environments that fail to meet a basic standard of personal safety, one could conclude that this would encompass situations in which a person is living in a family home but being abused by a family member and financially or otherwise unable to move out or establish a separate household.Footnote 1 An Australian advocacy group has termed this condition as one of "housed homelessness," to indicate that victims of family violence remain in the family home but lack both control and security (Gregory 2001).

A definition of the "fluid and elusive concept" of homelessness has been simplified by Daly (1996,1) in this way: "people are considered homeless if they lack adequate shelter in which they are entitled to live safely." Incorporating the dimension of personal safety is especially important to an understanding of the relationship between family violence and homelessness. The element of personal safety is of particular significance for women, who are more likely to perceive the home as an emotional retreat and a protective shelter, while men are more inclined to perceive the home in terms of status and achievement (Rainwater 1966).

In the case of children, of course, financial independence is not feasible. Avramov (1998, 63) refers to children living in a conflict-burdened family environment or an abusive family as "hidden homeless children."

Scholars continue to explore the various forms and meanings of homelessness. For instance, Kearns and Smith (1994) suggest that research should be based on a recognition of the theoretical distinctions among three categories of homelessness:

(1) literal homelessness (having no shelter), (2) incipient homelessness (living on the edge of homelessness), and (3) metaphorical homelessness (chronically not feeling at home). They refer to victims of family violence and indigenous peoples as groups who experience metaphorical homelessness.

Measuring Homelessness in the Context of Family Violence

Counting "the homeless" is an exercise fraught with problems relating to definition, logistics and ideology. Debates about the definition and therefore the size of the population affected by relative homelessness are unresolved. Virtually no empirical studies have included victims of family violence as part of the population of the relatively homeless, although they are acknowledged to be at risk of homelessness. Miller and Du Mont (2000, 115) argue that "until abused women are recognized as homeless, the matter of male violence against women will confound our understanding of the etiology, scope, and experiences of homelessness, as well as our ability to redress this problem."

Most research on homeless people is based on those who use shelters and other homeless services, such as drop-in centres.

Shelter Types

For the purposes of this report, shelters are distinguished as either family violence shelters, which specifically serve victims of family violence, or homeless shelters, which may serve youth or adults, singles or families, males or females or both.

Across Canada there are approximately 500 federally designated family violence sheltersFootnote 2 (also called transition houses, women's shelters, or abused women's shelters). A listing is available from the Stop Family Violence (Canada National Clearinghouse 2004). Providing refuge from abusive family members is the primary role of such shelters. Therefore, many adopt extensive security measures and ensure that confidentiality is carefully maintained. As well, these shelters provide services that are unavailable or less available at homeless shelters – most notably counselling for abused women and children.

The term homeless shelter refers to all shelters or hostels for homeless families or individuals (including youth-specific shelters), other than federally designated family violence shelters. There is no full list of homeless shelters in Canada; their total number is undocumented. (In Toronto alone, at the time of this writing, there were 55 homeless or emergency shelters and 12 family violence shelters.)

Shelter User Databases

The largest database on shelter use, and the only one available for longitudinal analysis, is maintained by the City of Toronto. This database collects basic demographic data and information on the reason for shelter use (those categories related to family issues are family breakdown, abuse by a spouse, and abuse by a parent). For most years since 1988, these data have been collected from both municipally funded homeless shelters and provincially funded family violence shelters (Toronto 2003).

The national homelessness strategy of the Government of Canada – the National Homelessness Initiative (NHI) – hosts the Homeless Individuals and Families Information System (HIFIS), a national database of aggregated data on sheltering service providers and client demographics, with an emphasis on emergency shelters. HIFIS is a computerized data-sharing protocol designed to compile basic demographic information on shelter users and information on the reason for service use, factors contributing to homelessness, and status upon discharge (NSH 2002). While HIFIS promises to provide a national longitudinal database, its implementation requires "community collaboration" (Ibid., 5) – the voluntary co-operation of shelters – which has been gradual and hesitant.

To further increase the knowledge base, the NHI supports national and local research efforts that help identify underlying causes and trends of homelessness. The HIFIS Initiative is an NHI program aimed at increasing this knowledge base through the promotion of information-sharing partnerships. Its operations and activities are geared toward providing communities with tools and supports to enhance their capacity to collect and share homelessness data. As a result, the database currently has minimal data on transition services for women.Footnote 3

Shelter Data Integration

Some researchers have decried the lack of integration of data from family violence shelters in counts of homelessness and other studies that focus on users of homeless shelters (Braun and Black 2003; Novac et al. 2002b; and Miller and Du Mont 2000). Published studies frequently exclude family violence shelter users or do not specify whether their sample included them.

In part this is because program and administrative frameworks for family violence shelters are distinct and controlled by government agencies different from those related to shelters that serve the wider homeless population. For example, abused women's shelters in Ontario are currently administered by the provincial government while homeless shelters are administered by local municipal governments. As well, attempts to obtain data directly from family violence shelters have occasionally met with ambivalence or resistance. One of the reasons for this resistance is a reluctance to add the stigmatized label of "homeless" to abused women (Zappardino and DeBare 1992). Resistance may also be related to the fact that victims have not relinquished their claims on the homes they were forced to leave (Novac et al. 2002b). As well, distrust of data gathering sources, lack of advance consultation, and the uncompensated extra burden on staff time required to complete questionnaires have also contributed to this ambivalence (Miller and Du Mont 2000).

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