Homelessness in our northern communities is a relatively recent phenomenon, emerging as a much more visible issue since the 1990s. Last week, a panel of experts in homelessness research, policy, advocacy, and social services convened at the Northern Voices on Homelessness forum in Anchorage, Alaska to try to understand what it means to be homeless in the north, why homelessness is on the rise and to exchange ideas on solutions. Canada’s north – a vast region that shares Alaska’s geography, climate, natural resources and rich Indigenous populations and cultures – is also known for being poorly served when it comes to housing and health care. A recent report on chronic housing needs in the Canadian North states that, “across the north, where more than half the population is Inuit (including Inuvialuit), First Nations (including Innu), or Métis, there is chronic housing need (lack of affordability, inadequacy, unsuitability, unavailability) and lower rates of home ownership than in the southern provinces.”
The chronic housing needs are linked to high unemployment rates and as a result, many people are forced into overcrowded, unsafe, and unsanitary living arrangements.
As the report points out, there is a direct link between inadequate housing and the perpetual health and social inequalities in Canada’s northern communities:
“Adequate, reliable, secure housing is a foundational building block to physical and mental health, economic security, positive relationships with oneself and others, and the realization of one’s local and national citizenship. The persistence of chronic housing needs in northern communities continues to degrade all of these components of a healthy life. Chronic housing needs have been directly linked to severe respiratory tract infections in children, suicide, low high school graduation rates, family violence, and addiction, the rates of which are higher in the North than elsewhere in Canada. … In a country where home ownership is privileged in so many ways, including through tax incentives… entire communities that rely on sub-standard social housing, with no option for home ownership, are placed at a persistent disadvantage relative to their fellow Canadians.”
In Ontario, people in rural and northern communities have higher self-reported rates of fair or poor mental health, compared to the provincial average. In large measure, this poor health status is linked to poor quality of housing.
In spite of the enormous challenges facing northern communities, there are promising policies and programs that are beginning to make change. In Ontario for example, the Rural and Northern Health Care Framework exists to improve access to health care in these areas. Furthermore, the health of people living in rural and northern communities is featured prominently in a number of provincial initiatives this year, including the 2014-2015 Provincial Budget,Poverty Reduction Strategy and Rural Roadmap. The government states that these initiatives aim to address essential public services needed to drive economic growth, create jobs and support a high quality of life in northern Ontario’s communities.