The invention of homelessness

Posted on September 18, 2010 in Inclusion History

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Editorial Opinion
Published On Sat Sep 18 2010.   David Hulchanski, Associate Director, Research, for the Cities Centre and Professor in the Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto

As of late 2009, the English language contained 1 million words, and new words are being added every day. With such abundance in the language, we tend to forget how powerful words can be, and that the names we give to ideas can shape our world view.

Consider a word that we take for granted, but that has far-reaching implications. The word is “homelessness.”

A search of the New York Times historical database covering 1851 to 2005 reveals that it was used in 4,755 articles, but 4,148 of them (87 per cent) were published in the 20 years between 1985 and 2005. Before the 1980s, it is rare to find “homelessness” used to designate a social problem. What happened in that decade that made the difference?

In 1981, the United Nations announced that 1987 would be the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless. The United Nations wanted to focus on the fact that so many people in less developed countries were unhoused. There was no mention of developed countries like Canada in that 1981 UN resolution.

Moreover, the 1981 UN General Assembly resolution did not use the word “homelessness” because the term as the name of a social problem was not in common use at the time. The 1981 UN resolution was intended to draw attention to the fact that many millions of households in developing countries had no housing. They were unhoused, homeless. They needed adequate housing.

But by 1987, the focus of the International Year had shifted to include homeless people in the developed nations of the world, including Canada. In that year, several academic and professional conferences focused on the growing number of unhoused people in Canada, not those in developing countries.

Before the 1980s, people in developed countries did not know what it was like to be unhoused. They had housing, even if that housing was in poor condition. Some transient single men in cities were referred to at times as “homeless.” But the term had a different meaning then.

For example, in 1960, a report by the Social Planning Council of Metro Toronto called Homeless and Transient Men, defined a “homeless man” as one with few or no ties to a family group, who was thus without the economic or social support a family home provides. The men were homeless, not unhoused. They had housing, albeit poor-quality housing — rooming houses or accommodation provided by charities. But they had no home.

Canada at that time thus had homeless individuals, but no problem called “homelessness.”

The word “homelessness” came into common use in developed countries in the early and mid-1980s to refer to the problem of dehousing — the fact that an increasing number of people who were once housed in these wealthy countries were no longer housed.

Before the 1980s, Canadian urban planners, public health officials, social workers and related professionals had focused on rehousing people into better housing and neighbourhoods.

During the Depression and World War II, very little new housing was built and many people were living in poor-quality, aging and overcrowded housing. After the war, Canadians revived the housing market, created a functioning mortgage system with government mortgage insurance, built social housing and subsidized private-sector rental housing. About 20,000 social housing units were created every year following the 1973 amendments to the National Housing Act.

In introducing the 1973 housing legislation, the minister of urban affairs — a federal ministry we no longer have today but which existed during most of the 1970s — asserted that our society has an obligation to see that all people are adequately housed.

The minister, Ron Basford, said, “When we talk . . . about the subject of housing, we are talking about an elemental human need — the need for shelter, for physical and emotional comfort in that shelter. When we talk about people’s basic needs — the requirements for survival — society and the government obviously have an obligation to assure that these basic needs of shelter are met.”

Undoubtedly we would not have the social problem of homelessness today if this philosophy had continued through the 1980s and 1990s to the present day. By the 1980s, however, Canada had a social problem that was and has ever since been called “homelessness.”

The cutbacks in social housing and related programs began in 1984. In 1993, all federal spending on the construction of new social housing was terminated and in 1996 the federal government further removed itself from low-income housing supply by transferring responsibility for most existing federal social housing to the provinces.

Over the past two decades, we relied on an increasingly deregulated society in which the “genius of market forces” would meet our needs, in which tax cuts, made possible by cuts to programs that largely benefited poor and average-income people, were supposed to “trickle down” to benefit those in need. The competitive economy required, we were told, wage suppression and part-time jobs with no benefits.

By the early 1980s, countries like Canada needed a new term for a new social problem. The word “homelessness” filled the gap. Adding the suffix “-ness” turns the adjective “homeless” into an abstract noun. As such, it allows readers and listeners to imagine whatever they want. It tosses all sorts of problems into one handy term.

In short, we have not used the word “homelessness” for very long. It is a catch-all term for a host of serious social and economic policy failures.

Its widespread usage reflects what has happened to Canadian society — the way we organize who gets what, and our failure to have in place systems for meeting basic human needs in a universal, inclusive fashion.

David Hulchanski is co-editor of an electronic book on homelessness, Finding Home, available on the Homeless Hub,

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One Response to “The invention of homelessness”

  1. Mallory S. Payne, SSW Reg (Ont.) says:

    It’s interesting for those of us who weren’t around between the 1960’s and 80’s to get a glimpse into the what “homelessness” actually represented. Although we would think it would have held the same meanings it does today, it’s obvious that it had a very different and less meaningful connotation, as it did in the earlier years.

    Historically the term “homelessness” was mainly used within the underdeveloped countries. It wasn’t really a term used to its true meaning for those without shelter or basic needs of life within our own already developed country and society. When the author stated, “Canada at that time thus had homeless individuals, but no problem called “homelessness.”(para 9). I couldn’t help but think don’t we still seem to have this issue within our society even now, still to this date. I agree that it has come a long way since the 60’s and there have been an abundance of agencies, shelters and political pushes to help those without basic needs and shelter. Although with all those movements “we” as a developed nation are unfortunately still trying to find solution for the problem of homelessness. So what happened? Why is this still a problem when it shouldn’t have to be? It seemed as though we got on the right track when the National Housing Act became amended in 1973, but then what? Why and who were the ones to initiate cut backs and demolish this federal ministry of Urban Affairs? If “we” (“we” being a active citizens of our Canadian Nation) could have kept this social supporting “philosophy” going I could only imagine the benefits not only to the homeless in our society but to the society as a whole would have benefited from. The benefits of pursuing this philosophical ideology would range from improvements to the employment rates, employment opportunities, more housing, etc. and the list could go on.

    Unless we do something about this nation’s cyclic patterns of identifying homelessness, we will continually have to revisit and address the problematic redundancy of what drives homelessness within this country. I feel as though homelessness is not a problem…it’s a symptom, a symptom to a problem that only nation policy makers can make the changes.


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