Homeless Outside the City: A Look at Canada’s Rural Homeless Population

Homeless people seek shelter in abandoned buildings

When we think of homelessness, our minds naturally gravitate toward big cities. We picture people sleeping under streetlamps instead of stars, walking beside skyscrapers instead of meadows; but that’s not always the case. In Canada and elsewhere, a budding rural population of homeless people grows. Away from the sight of the millions of city dwellers and tourists who cluster in metropolitan hubs, this group of homeless people face unique obstacles in their pursuit of a better life.

What Homelessness Looks Like in Rural Canada

A rural landscape often consists of regions with 25,000 residents or less. These small towns might have centralized gathering spaces, but much of the residential terrain is disjointed and spread-out. This creates an isolating environment for rough sleepers. To add insult to injury, most of these rural regions have zero emergency shelters and little to no assistance available. Due to a sheer lack of attention, awareness, and community responsibility, it’s difficult to say whether the absence of emergency shelters is an intentional ploy or the result of willful ignorance. It suffices to say that the end result remains the same from either position.

Mounting snow covers the wilderness and this oft-ignored population of fellow humans finds shelter in places deemed “unfit for human habitation.” Such locations include, but are not limited to:

  • Tents in snowy forest land
  • Tiny parks and playgrounds
  • Dilapidated houses filled with toxins and other hazards. These places are broken and abandoned for good reason. A common dwelling space for rural homeless people might be:
    • a mold infested building
    • a house with toxic components such as mold, lead, asbestos, or PVC
    • a home that lacks lighting or is fitted with unsafe electrical wiring
    • or even a house with poor architecture that could collapse at any minute.

The Dangers of Squatting in Canadian Wilderness

With limited or zero accessible emergency services on-hand, an individual seeking shelter might find it at the price of their health, their life, and yes, even their freedom. You’ve probably heard the myth of Squatter’s Rights in lavish Canada. If you haven’t, the story has convinced many that squatters can acquire rights to land over time through an “adverse possession” clause. Much like a beautiful house built upon a faulty foundation, Squatter’s Rights are not what they appear to be. If you navigate to section 28 of Canada’s modern adverse possession legislation, you’ll see the line that mentions the following:

“no right or title in or to land may be acquired by adverse possession.”

The lone exception seems to be applicable only if a squatter has been on the premises since before July 1st of 1975. Henceforth, 2019 Canadian squatters’ rights are akin to rural emergency shelters. There aren’t any, plain and simple.

Here you can view live footage of 27 squatters being forcibly removed from an abandoned school building in Nanaimo. Ironically, these squatters weren’t homeless people, but advocates bent on raising awareness of the rising homeless crisis in the area.
Even if rural squatters can manage to evade arrests by keeping a low-profile (an impractical feat in a small-town setting), they still risk the following dangers due to the uninhabitable conditions they reside in:

  • Disease brought on by toxins or carcinogens
  • Robberies due to the inability to lock (or in some cases close) doors and windows
  • Accidental electrocution
  • Death or injury resulting from falling walls, roof, structure, or foundation
  • Death or injury due to floods and other natural disasters
  • Severe illness caused by rampant rodents, roaches, termites, and other pests
  • Exposure to extreme temperatures if these buildings lack insulation, electricity, or other vital heating/cooling components
  • Inability to rise out of homelessness due to the need to remain under the radar, to stay invisible so to speak

When you take into consideration the fact that 34% of documented homeless people have no health card in Canada, you can see how residing in an uninhabitable residence could have lasting adverse effects. It’s important to point out that most homeless people in rural Canada aren’t documented.

Homelessness in Rural Canada by the Numbers

When it comes to homelessness in rural Canada, the most relevant, complicated number is zero.

When 22 towns were asked how many emergency homeless shelters they had, the most common answer was zero. Even more astoundingly, when asked how many public records they’d kept on the subject, that answer was also zero. Homeless people in rural Canada are not counted, they’re reported. The fact that homelessness is “on the rise” is viewed as local gossip. There are no hard numbers to support or counter the claim. There are, however, numerous examples of homeless people being encouraged to just get out of town.

Should Rural Leaders Be Encouraging Homeless People to Move into Big Cities?

Rural homelessness presents unique complications that are not adaptable to urban planning and prevention methods in most cases. Small-town challenges include:

  • Funding and resource restrictions
  • Little to no training/experience in handling homelessness
  • Vast displacement of Aboriginal people and underlying, unaddressed racism
  • Transportation restrictions
  • Fewer housing options to choose from

Due to the aforementioned problems, rural Canada has had difficulty following the metropolitan blueprint for combatting and preventing homelessness. But does that mean simply ushering homeless people out is the answer?

In truth, shooing homeless people further down the line only exacerbates these conditions. Homelessness is frequently hidden in these locales, a sleeping monster situated behind the rolling hills.

Why is rural homelessness a sleeping monster? Because the solution to homelessness here is different and so is the cause! While lack of affordable housing is still a significant factor in rural Canadian homelessness, other problems like domestic abuse, investments in gas and oil wreaking havoc on the economy, and insufficient resources in Aboriginal reserves are playing huge roles in this as well. It is impossible to solve a problem without first fixing the root cause.

Everything Is Happening on a Smaller Scale Making Even Large Problems Look Miniscule

To put things into perspective, take this example. Let’s say there are five homeless people in a town of 500, that’s still 1% of their population. From a mathematical standpoint, it’s the equivalent to 55,000 homeless people in Toronto. Incidentally, there are 9,600 homeless people currently on the streets in Toronto. Now Magazine called it a crisis. Global News says, “this is an emergency”. However, from a physical standpoint, it’s easy to see how five people could get overlooked when there are cities with so many more. What we seem to be forgetting is that one homeless person is one too many.

One Voice Speaks Volumes in a Small Town

Housing First put together a very informative Webinar that delves even deeper into this topic. One of the most impactful stories was that of a town so small that just one person owned all of the houses. This landlord boycotted helping homeless people and his lone decision took a toll on every homeless person there.

This is an example of one voice. But guess what? You have one voice, too. Please make your voice heard with local legislators. Let them know that you’re becoming more aware of Canada’s pending homeless crisis every day and that you expect them to uphold and honor the rights of all human beings.

Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith


Cynthia Griffith is a freelance writer dedicated to social justice and environmental issues.

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