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The population living in shelters: Who are they?

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Released: 2019-04-15

Access to safe and affordable housing is an important aspect of well-being. Unfortunately, some Canadians are unable to secure stable housing and, for various reasons, may stay in a shelter. This study uses census data to provide an overview of the population living in shelters, one that is often excluded from the target population of surveys.

In 2016, the census counted 995 shelters with 22,190 shelter residents. At the time of the census, almost 7 in 10 of these residents were at shelters for people with no fixed address, one-quarter (5,365) were at shelters for women and children escaping abuse and the remaining 1,320 were in other types of shelters. While those living in shelters do not represent all homeless people, they are an important aspect of homelessness in Canada.

Statistics Canada data on population living in shelters

The census provides an important overview of certain sub-populations that are often excluded from the target population of surveys—those living in shelters.

Other initiatives exist to monitor Canada's homeless population. Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) maintains the National Homelessness Information System, which helps facilitate the collection of data from service providers. Statistics Canada also recently began disseminating data from the Homeless Individuals and Families Information System, which reports on capacity, bed and shelter counts for shelters in Canada using data maintained by ESDC.

In 2016, the Government of Canada also supported a coordinated count of the homeless in communities across the country. For additional information about this count, refer to the Homelessness Strategy Point-in-time Count section of the ESDC website.

Two Statistics Canada surveys, the Transition Home Survey (THS) and the General Social Survey (GSS) – Victimization, also provide statistics related to those seeking shelter. The THS and the GSS – Victimization concentrate on different aspects of homelessness.

The THS provides information about the number of beds in shelters for abused women and their children and a point-in-time count of individuals living in shelters, as well as their experiences with domestic abuse and addiction. The GSS's cycle on victimization asks respondents about their lifetime experiences with absolute and/or hidden homelessness, as well as other details about their life experiences.

While men represented the majority of persons living in shelters (60.8%), this differed by shelter type. Most residents in shelters for people without a fixed address (72.8%) and other shelters (89.8%) were men. Meanwhile, residents of shelters for those escaping abuse were predominantly women and their children (96.2%).

Seniors (5.9%) accounted for a small share of shelter residents in 2016. Part of this is attributable to the availability of other types of dwellings with services targeted towards seniors, such as nursing homes and residences for senior citizens.

The vast majority of shelter residents were single (89.1%) and many of these residents earned after-tax income that would put them in low income were they living in a one-person private household (84.7%). The median after-tax income of those living in a shelter because they had no fixed address ($10,576), were escaping abuse ($12,599) and for other reasons ($4,848) was well below half the median after-tax income of individuals aged 15 and older in private dwellings ($30,866).

Shelter residents were also less likely to have a private source of income and more likely to receive government transfers than those living in private dwellings. Almost half (46.9%) of shelter residents had some private source of income and 90.4% received some form of government benefit. Shelter residents (54.1%) were over 10 times more likely to be recipients of social assistance benefits than those who lived in private dwellings (4.6%).

  Note to readers

Shelters are establishments for persons lacking a fixed address or for persons needing transitional shelter or assistance. Included are:

  • shelters for persons lacking a fixed address;
  • shelters for abused women and children;
  • other shelters including transition homes or halfway houses.

Usual place of residence in Canada refers to the dwelling in which the person usually lives. It is used to identify the person as a member of a particular household and, potentially, family (depending on the composition of the household). For persons with no residence, their usual place of residence is where they stayed on Census Day, May 10, 2016.

Single refers here to all individuals whose marital status was not married. Common-law status was not collected for shelter residents in the 2016 Census of Population.

Children refers here to all individuals who were less than 15 years old.

The After Tax Low Income Measure (LIM-AT) is an internationally used measure of low income. The concept underlying the LIM-AT is that a household has low income if its income is less than half the median income of all households.

Low income is commonly analysed at the household level when considering private households and the LIM-AT thresholds are determined by household size. For the purpose of this analysis, low income for shelter residents is determined using the After-tax Low Income Measure for one-person households in 2015.

For the 2016 Census of Population, the reference day for demographic variables is May 10, 2016. For all income variables the reference period is the calendar year 2015.


These results are from a new study released today in the Income Research Paper Series (Catalogue number75F0002M). The objective of this analysis is to provide a picture of Canadians living in shelters using data from the 2016 Census of Population.

Contact information

For more information, or to enquire about the concepts, methods or data quality of this release, contact us (toll-free 1-800-263-1136; 514-283-8300; or Media Relations (613-951-4636;

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