Immigrants are Toronto’s ‘hidden homeless’

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Toronto’s Kingsview Village-The Westway combines apartment highrises and single-family homes. Photo: GTD AQUITANE/Wikimedia Commons


Home, for almost nine in 10 low-income families in Toronto, is an overcrowded, unaffordable and unsafe apartment in a highrise building. Its units are infested with vermin, in dire need of basic repairs and incidents of theft and assault are commonplace, a new study published by the University of Toronto’s Cities Centre has shown.

Researchers said their study reveals the hidden face of homelessness: families with children who live in places “not intended for human habitation,” who live with other families because they are unable to afford their own place, have been evicted due to rental arrears, or have been victims of domestic violence. More than one in five are at constant risk of ending up in overcrowded shelters or on the street.

“…Housing loss is a common occurrence among low-income families living in these conditions. The vast majority of families who lose their housing due to eviction, violence, unsafe conditions and other factors do not use shelters,” said the study released March 12. “The families in Toronto’s shelters therefore represent only a fraction of those who are homeless.”

Racialized, immigrant, and lone-mother-headed families are “over-represented” in these substandard and decaying highrises, according to the study, Nowhere Else to Go: Inadequate Housing & Risk of Homelessness Among Families in Toronto’s Aging Rental Buildings.

The study was based on a survey of 1,566 families with children – 218 of whom live in social housing and 1,348 in private rental housing, in inner-suburban neighbourhoods of Toronto and in the downtown neighbourhood of Parkdale.  It also included focus-group interviews with some survey participants.

More than 80 per cent of those polled are immigrants, belong to racialized groups, or both.

The highly educated working poor

The risk of homelessness “do not differ significantly” whether these immigrants are newcomer, recent, long-term or Canadian-born, the study noted. But in terms of the  “severity of homelessness risk,” more Canadian-born and long-term immigrants at “critical risk” compared to newcomers. Recent immigrants, however, are less likely to be adequately housed.

What accounts for these differences? Racialized newcomers and recent immigrants are much more likely to live in overcrowded conditions, while Canadian-born and long-term immigrant respondents are more likely to live in bad building conditions and to risk eviction because they are behind in rent, the study said.

Lone-parent families (over 90 per cent of them headed by women) are more likely to be at “severe risk” of homelessness, especially if they are racialized, it noted.

Being employed and highly educated do not necessarily guarantee adequate housing and freedom from poverty. “Two thirds of all families in the study report employment as their main source of household income,” it noted. “Most have completed post-secondary education. In spite of this, 80 per cent have incomes below the poverty line ($18, 759, according to the Alliance for a Poverty-Free Toronto).”

Human toll

In assessing housing conditions, the study identified six indicators of inadequate housing: unaffordable, overcrowded, unsafe, insecure tenure, bad unit conditions and bad building conditions.

Of those polled, half live in overcrowded conditions, while close to half are in high-rises with “persistent pests, frequent elevator breakdowns, and/or broken door locks.”

One in three families spends more than half of its monthly income on rent and housing needs; nearly one in four live in a unit in dire need of repair or in an unsafe building, and more than one in five are at risk of eviction due to rental arrears.

“Only 11 per cent of respondents’ housing met minimum standards in all six domains of adequacy,” the study added.

Living in sub-standard, sub-human conditions are taking a toll on these families, the study added.

Overcrowded living conditions lead to stress and conflict, and limits privacy for both adults and children.

The phenomenon of multiple families sharing homes has “intensified” in recent years, resulting largely from stagnant wages, lack of access to jobs that pay decent wages and discrimination in the rental housing market.

“Service providers and families confirmed that overcrowding is often a strategy for coping with high housing costs: low-income families cannot afford apartments of an appropriate size,” said the study. “Using the living room as a bedroom or parents and children sharing a bedroom are commonplace among families.” One in 10 families surveyed said their homes had three or more people per bedroom; service providers estimate, however, that “the extent of overcrowding is even greater.”

“Newcomers who double up with other families on arrival often find it difficult to move on into places of their own due to discrimination and barriers in employment and the rental market,” said the study.

Many newcomers often stay with other families until they are able to establish their credit history, find employment and guarantors, which are required by landlords. “Though these living arrangements are usually intended to be temporary, they often become long term because of the lack of housing and employment options for racialized recent immigrants,” said the study.


Poverty dictates housing choices, with families having to compromise safety, safe and livable conditions “just to keep a roof over their children’s heads,” the study said. In most cases, parents use food banks or skip meals just to pay the rent. High rent, compounded by annual rent increases, are another source of stress for these families. “For families who are already paying more than half their income on rent, even an annual guideline rent increase of two to three per cent, amounting to $20 to $30 per month, represents a substantial reduction in access to other needs, particularly when multiplied,” the study added.

Those in the higher-risk categories commonly report theft, harassment and assault in their buildings, said the study. “Abuse by partners and other family members is the most common cause of homelessness among women and families.”

Landlords often ignore requests for repairs in units and some tenants have reported being harassed as a result of having filed complaints.

Tenants reported that their children’s health have been compromised because of mould, cold, or excessive heat. “Many spoke of winters without sufficient heat, broken appliances that prevented the proper storage and preparation of good, and bedbug infestations that had forced them to dispose of belongings.”

They have also been at the receiving end of “disrespectful, racist, and sexist treatment” from building staff. “Tenants and service providers’ stories revealed a culture of impunity among some landlords and property managers, who know that low-income families have few other housing options, and who are adept at appearing to comply with municipal orders while making a few genuine improvements.”

Not all neighbourhoods have the same problems said the study. “The risk of homelessness is least severe in Dorset-Kennedy, less severe in Thorncliffe-Flemingdon, Mid-Scarborough, and Jane-Finch, more severe in Rexdale and Parkdale, and most severe in Weston-Mount Dennis.” These neighbourhoods have a high percentage of racialized groups and are among the lowest-income neighbourhoods in Toronto. 

“The risk of homelessness is least severe in Dorset-Kennedy, less severe in Thorncliffe-Flemingdon, Mid-Scarborough, and Jane-Finch, more severe in Rexdale and Parkdale, and most severe in Weston-Mount Dennis." Photo: MARITES N. SISON/The Origami

“The risk of homelessness is least severe in Dorset-Kennedy, less severe in Thorncliffe-Flemingdon, Mid-Scarborough, and Jane-Finch, more severe in Rexdale and Parkdale, and most severe in Weston-Mount Dennis.” Photo: MARITES N. SISON/The Origami


The study has four key recommendations to help improve low-income families’ access to “safe, stable, affordable and suitable” housing:

  • Increase the supply of affordable housing. The Canadian government’s Housing First initiative to end homelessness will succeed only if this goal is included, said the study. “In addition, the federal government and municipalities should ensure that Housing First programs address the unique ways in which families experience housing  loss and homelessness.”
  • The provincial government must provide “portable housing benefit” for those on low incomes.
  • The provincial and city governments can help increase the supply of affordable housing for families through “inclusionary zoning, in which a percentage of units in all new developments must be affordable.” Toronto has experienced a housing and condo boom in recent years, but “only a handful” are affordable and accessible to low-income families.
  • The City of Toronto must strictly enforce building standards and tenants’ rights.

The study was conducted by Emily Paradis, Ruth Marie Wilson and Jennifer Logan, and  funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada through the Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership, based at the University of Toronto.


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