Review - Relating Homelessness to Education, Employment and Income Support A Review of Canadian Literature

Gordon J. Josephson, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada

Gordon J. Josephson is an independent consultant working with the National Secretariat on Homelessness in Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.

To support the development of effective measures to prevent and reduce homelessness, the National Research Program (NRP) of the National Secretariat on Homelessness has undertaken a review of print and electronic documents relating homelessness to education, employment, and income support.1 The review indicates there is very little documented Canadian research exploring these themes.

A general point on which several authors agree is that homelessness is both affected by and affects education, employment, and income support, as well as related topics, such as health and addictions. However, concrete theoretical models relating education, employment, or income support to homelessness are rare in the Canadian literature. To rectify this situation, indepth studies that use and document more rigorous research methods have recently been published. Such studies provide initial insights into the training and economic activities of people who are homeless. Further use of such empirical research methods is needed to direct future research and trial interventions in this domain.

Existing Knowledge

In examining existing Canadian literature, the following can be said with some certainty.

  • Difficulties with education, employment, and income support can be related to difficulties with health, mental health, and addictions, and all of these factors both affect and are affected by homelessness.

  • Specific sub-populations of homeless people, such as First Nations people and youth, face considerable challenges in the areas of education and employment.

  • Among homeless people, there are high rates of unemployment. Many have not completed high school, and income support is often difficult to access.

  • There is agreement on the need for programs in education, training, and employment. Toward this end, several programs exist. However, information is lacking on the details of their operations, and objective evaluations of their performance are rare.

Homelessness as Cause and Effect

It has been known for some time that areas of concern, such as health, mental health, and addictions, are related to education, employment, and income support. In turn, these areas affect, and are affected by, homelessness (Smart and Ogborne, 1994). However, while correlations are evident, deeper studies of these associations are rare. As a result, it is difficult to understand causality when examining any of these factors and an individual’s current life situation. Longitudinal research would be helpful in understanding these interactions.

Although it is easy to imagine how homelessness might impact attempts to secure education, employment, or financial stability, very little research exists that attempts to evaluate services to assist with these challenges. In a Toronto study, street youth participants noted that a lack of services to assist with difficulties regarding contacting and being contacted by employers, preparing résumés, and getting to work on time in clean clothes makes gainful employment difficult to obtain (Dachner and Tarasuk, 2002). Homeless people also report the need for facilities to safeguard their money and identification (Bergeron et al., 2000).

The impact of health and mental health on education, employment, and income and, subsequently, homelessness has been studied directly in the United States by Zuvekas and Hill (2000). They surveyed 471 homeless adults, randomly selected from shelters, and found that a large number of them worked, but few were able to generate significant earnings from employment alone. Many had physical health problems and addictions that limited both their ability to work and to access assistance with their health. These findings suggest avenues for future Canadian research.

Sub-Populations with Specific Difficulties

In developing responses to the challenges identified above, it must also be recognized that access to education and employment can vary by identity and circumstance. Greater difficulties have been noted for First Nations people (Hull, 2000) and people coming from foster care (Fitzgerald, 1995). Descriptive research indicates many homeless youth are not on income support as they find it too difficult to access (Gaetz and O’Grady, 2002; Raising the Roof, 2001). Other barriers to income support include policies regarding youth aged 16-18 years (Fitzgerald, 1995).

The challenges faced by youth have been the subject of much of the work in this area. Gaetz and O’Grady (2002) completed significant research on the economic activity of youth from a sociological perspective. They found that youth might be involved in several different income-generating activities in a week or even in a given day. The authors also found that 83.4% of young men and 87.8% of young women indicated they were interested in finding paid employment. Furthermore, contrary to some stereotypes, the youth were interested in employment in the formal economy. The researchers found, however, that the ability of these youth to join the formal economy was influenced by the youth’s abilities and aspects of their lifestyle, history, and social relationships. Therefore, the authors concluded that successful strategies to move young people off the street cannot rest simply on low-paying employment or the addition of hard and soft skills. Instead, various training and support services, combined with adequate income support are needed.

In a similar study, O’Grady and Greene (2003) explored the effect of legislation banning squeegee cleaning and the subsequent decrease in this source of economic activity for homeless youth. They found that the housing situation for youth eroded after this legislation was introduced.

One study of young women at risk of homelessness recommended more opportunities for education and employment for youth, as well as changes to the Employment Insurance Act, supportive educational programs, services within schools to prevent homelessness, and access to education for homeless young women (Novac et al., 2002).

In summary, several authors have documented the specific challenges with regards to education, employment, and income support of several sub-populations. While much remains to be done, this research provides a starting point.

The Need for Education, Employment, and Greater Income Support

Many authors cited under-employment, the lack of training, and insufficient social assistance as causes of homelessness (e.g., Charette, 1991; Falvo, 2003). Indeed, it is common to find references to low levels of education and high unemployment in most surveys of homeless people (Aubry et al., 2003; Norman et al., 1993; Raising the Roof, 2001).

In contrast to the United States, research on homelessness and education, employment and income support in Canada has a short history with few large surveys based on data collected over several years. Nevertheless, while much remains to be determined, education appears to be a key factor: the percentage of homeless people without high school has been cited as ranging between 63% and 90% in Ottawa and Toronto (CMHC, 2001). As well, many homeless youth not in school express an interest in returning to school (Aubry et al., 2003). Some initial patterns between education and employment have been observed. Tolomiczenko and Goering (1998) found that 64.3% of their sample of shelter users in Toronto did not finish high school (vs. 34% for all Canadians) and, when compared to information on employment, found a pattern in which those who did not drop out were more likely to be employed. In a sample of youth, it was also found that those with the least education were more likely to be involved in less stable or illegal economic activities, such as the drug trade or prostitution (Gaetz and O’Grady, 2002).

Aside from such descriptive statistics, little is known about the factors related to homeless people’s education and the relationships among these factors. In general, very little information was located on how to address the education needs of homeless people in Canada. There is some initial qualitative evidence suggesting assistance with physical and learning disabilities would be a potentially important service as these have had a negative impact on schooling and employment among homeless people (Guirguis- Younger, Runnels, and Aubrey, 2003). However, much research remains to be done in this area.

In contrast, unemployment rates, inadequate income, and difficulties with income support have been well documented as causes and contributing factors to people cycling in and out of homelessness (Eberle et al., 2001). In a study of at risk homeless people, 21% reported being unemployed (GVRD, 2002). Among surveyed shelter users, 38% had no current income and only 20% were receiving any welfare support (Tolomiczenko and Goering, 1998).

Of 360 homeless Toronto youth, only 15% identified paid employment as their primary source of income and only 15% reported being on social assistance (Gaetz and O’Grady, 2002). In addition to documenting the rates of unemployment and poverty among homeless people, researchers have begun to explore the distribution of homelessness and contrast it with the distribution of services (Bunting et al., 2002).

Homeless people surveyed by the national charitable organization, Raising the Roof (2001), also described difficulties accessing social assistance. The Raising the Roof study, From Street to Stability, recommended that the welfare system be better designed to provide immediate assistance to those in crisis and to simplify the application process. It also recommended higher minimum wages, more job training, job seeking assistance, and apprenticeship programs. Unfortunately, the report is largely descriptive, and although it highlights themes of potential importance in future studies, it does not gather sufficient information to suggest how to best address areas of concern. Nor does such descriptive work allow for an examination of the relative importance of the proposed interventions.

Despite their limitations, the abovementioned works have begun to define the severity of these issues. They point to areas requiring services and suggest possible types of interventions to address these program gaps.

Promising Practices

Several reviewed documents listed programs labelled as education, employment, and income support for homeless people (e.g., Raising the Roof, 2001; CMHC, 1995). On close examination, however, very few of the projects offer well-developed programs that explicitly target education, employment, and income support. But there are exceptions.

Raising the Roof’s Shared Learnings on Homelessness Web site identifies a few programs targeting these areas. For example, the Causeway Work Centre of Ottawa is designed to strengthen skills and develop the supports necessary to sustain, in the community, an individual with a severe mental illness.

Other studies look at more examples of educational programming. Although now somewhat dated, work by Love (1993) described a storefront school located in Winnipeg offering flexible and applied education to street youth. Another example is the Literacy and Homelessness project in Toronto (Trumpener, 1997). It offers literacy training to homeless adults at drop-in centres, trains service providers on literacy, and facilitates the sharing of experiences between literacy programs. In describing this and similar projects, Trumpener indicated a need to document projects in a more detailed manner.

As is common in the literature, descriptions of the above programs lack the details necessary to evaluate their success objectively. Project descriptions do not indicate if they are being evaluated or are collecting data for future evaluations. Bridgman (2001) and other authors noted this shortcoming in current literature, and stressed the need to move beyond simple descriptions of projects. They also noted, however, that the lack of funding, or the short-term nature of funding, often discourages such program evaluations.

A clear exception to the lack of detail is the work of Bridgman (2001), who used qualitative interviews and observations to describe the implementation of a project designed to develop housing and offer employment training for homeless youth. In the pilot project, youth who lacked stable housing were trained in construction. The author documented issues to consider in this type of project and a method for conducting similarly detailed examinations of other projects. This work marks a significant step in this area of exploration.

Evaluation research on housing programs in other jurisdictions appears to be more extensive than that observed in Canada. American researchers documented the difficulties of evaluating education programs for homeless people (Penuel and Davey, 1998) and compiled a description of best practices for employment training for homeless people (Beck et al., 1997). British researchers conducted a comprehensive evaluation of a range of projects that provide specialist employment and training services to homeless youth (Randall and Brown, 1999).

Lessons Learned

In the limited Canadian research that exists, authors identified the following policy conclusions.

  • Researchers from Vancouver (CS/RESORS, 1989) concluded that employment services for homeless people need to consider helping their clients find housing, emotional counselling, health care, and recreational opportunities.

  • The Raising the Roof study (2001) identified the need for:

    • better information sharing regarding available programs;

    • attention to homelessness in the education system;

    • more social assistance programs;

    • a higher minimum wage and better access to employment insurance;

    • more assistance with finding employment and more opportunities for employment;

    • more training opportunities and affordable and flexible post-secondary education; and

    • greater access to support services to enable people to remain employed.

  • Bridgman (2001) concluded that successful projects need to cross regulatory boundaries and ensure the co-operation of many different agencies and funding bodies. Indeed, such multi-agency research is beginning to provide examples of longitudinal data (e.g., Aubry et al., 2003). A difficulty with these observations is that many are based on opinions, reviews of others’ opinions, and simple descriptive research. Although opinions and descriptions are important starting places, it would be helpful to demonstrate the positive effects of the policy interventions recommended above through research design and objective measures.

    Perhaps the most important lesson from the literature review is that sustained funding is needed for detailed and objective research to design interventions and examine their effectiveness. Related to this need, a number of policy-relevant research gaps were also identified.

  • Gaetz and O’Grady (2002) suggested that to better understand the dynamics of the education and employment of homeless youth, there is a need for a more thorough understanding of how young people end up on the streets and what keeps them there. As well, they indicated a need to understand the changes in “occupational identity” that occur in youth on the street. More research is needed on the degree to which the most marginalized of homeless people are restricted from entering the economic mainstream.

  • In the area of homelessness and education, there is a need for research that examines the relationships among factors related to education and is not simply a description of levels of education.

Future Directions

This literature review confirms a lack of knowledge about education, employment, and income support among homeless people and those at risk of becoming homeless. Although there are numerous examples of research in the United States on job preparation, skill development, special employment arrangements, income support programs, and access to education, there is very little written on these topics in Canada.

While statistics and observations exist in Canada of homeless people regarding their difficulties securing education, employment, and income support, research is required in a number of areas.

  • Basic information is needed on the employment preferences of homeless people.

  • Detailed accounts of the economic activities of adults and youth are needed, particularly outside of Ontario.

  • Basic information on the educational needs and preferences of homeless youth and adults is needed.

The following efforts are required to obtain these sorts of data:

  • research projects with a clear research design, valid method, and objective measures;

  • detailed and objective evaluations of interventions to prevent and alleviate homelessness; and

  • longitudinal and multi-site research examining education, employment, and income support for homeless people.

In the future, research needs to move beyond simple counts and descriptions to more in-depth explanations and the exploration of the relative importance of these factors. Such information will facilitate the design, implementation, and evaluation of effective interventions.


Aubry, T., F. Klodawsky, E. Hay, and S. Birnie. 2003. Panel Study on Persons Who Are Homeless in Ottawa: Phase 1 Results. Final Report. Ottawa: University of Ottawa.

Beck, S., J. Trutko, K. Isbell, F. Rothstein, and B. Barnow. 1997. Employment and Training for America’s Homeless: Best Practices Guide. Arlington, VA: James Bell Associates, Inc.

Bergeron, N., G. Josephson, T. Aubry, and C. Andrew. 2000. Assisting Recipients of Social Benefits with a History of Homelessness with Financial Matters: A Needs Assessment in the Region of Ottawa-Carleton. Ottawa: University of Ottawa.

Bridgman, R. 2001. “I Helped Build That: A Demonstration Employment Training Program for Homeless Youth in Toronto, Canada.” American Anthropologist 103: 779- 795.

Bunting, T., P. Filon, and R. Walks. 2002. Households at Risk of Homelessness: Distributional Patterns within Eleven Canadian Metropolitan Regions.

Charette, C. 1991. Research Initiative on Homelessness: International Year of Shelter for the Homeless, Occasional paper 27. Winnipeg: University of Winnipeg.

CMHC (Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation). 1995. Inventory of Projects and Programs Addressing Homelessness. Ottawa: CMHC.

———. 2001. Research Highlights: Environmental Scan on Youth Homelessness 86. Socio-Economic Series. Ottawa: CMHC.

CS/RESORS Consulting Ltd. 1989. A Study of the Vancouver ReConnect Program and Vancouver Street Youth. Vancouver B.C.: RESORS Consulting Ltd.

Dachner, N., and V. Tarasuk. 2002. “Homeless Squeegee Kids: Food Insecurity and Daily Survival.” Social Science and Medicine 54: 1039-1049.

Eberle, M., D. Kraus, and L. Serge. 2001. Homelessness – Causes and Effects, vols. 1, 2, 3, and 4. Vancouver: British Columbia Ministry of Social Development and Economic Security.

Falvo, N. 2003. “Gimme Shelter!” Toronto: CSJ Foundation for Research and Education.

Fitzgerald, M. 1995. “Homeless Youths and the Child Welfare System: Implications for Policy and Service.” Child Welfare 74: 717-730.

Gaetz, S., and B. O’Grady. 2002. Making Money: Exploring the Economy of Young Homeless Workers. Work, Employment and Society 16: 433-456.

Guirguis-Younger, M., V. Runnels, and T. Aubry. 2003. A Study of the Deaths of Persons who are Homeless in Ottawa – A Social and Health Investigation. Report to the City of Ottawa, Volume 1. Ottawa: University of Ottawa (Centre for Research on Community Services).

GVRD (Greater Vancouver Regional District). 2002. Research Project on Homelessness in Greater Vancouver, vol. 1. Vancouver: Greater Vancouver Regional District.

Hull, J. 2000. “Aboriginal Post-Secondary Education and Labour Market Outcomes.” Winnipeg: Prologica Research Inc.

Love, M. 1993. “Storefront School Draws Street Kids Back to Education.” Education Manitoba 20: 30-31.

Norman, R., S. Schwandt, and S. Eisler. 1993. The Impact of Supported Housing on a Downtown Homeless Population. Ottawa: CMHC.

Novac, Sylvia, Luba Serge, Margaret Eberle, and Joyce Brown. 2002. On Her Own: Young Women and Homelessness in Canada. Ottawa: Status of Women Canada.

O’Grady, B., and C. Greene. 2003. “A Social and Economic Impact Study of the Ontario Safe Streets Act on Toronto Squeegee Workers.” Online Journal of Justice Studies 1.

Penuel, W., and T. Davey. 1998. Evaluation Design for Homeless Education Programs: A Meta-Evaluation of McKinney Programs in Tennessee. EDRS microfiche.

Raising the Roof. 2001. From Street to Stability: A Compilation of Findings on the Paths to Homelessness and Its Prevention. <>.

Randall, G., and S. Brown. 1999. “Employment and Training Schemes for Homeless Young People.” <>.

Smart, R., and A. Ogborne. 1994. “Street Youth in Substance Abuse Treatment: Characteristics and Treatment Compliance.” Adolescence 29: 733-745.

Tolomiczenko, G., and P. Goering. 1998. “Pathways into Homelessness: Broadening the Perspective.” Psychiatry Rounds 2.

———. 2000. “The Process and Politics of Community-Based Research with People Currently Homeless.” Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal 24: 46-51.

Trumpener, B. 1997. Gimme Shelter: Homelessness and Literacy, Toronto: St. Christopher House Adult Literacy Program Publications.

Zuvekas, S., and S. Hill. 2000. “Income and Employment among Homeless People: The Role of Mental Health, Health and Substance Abuse.” The Journal of Mental Health Policy and Economics 3: 153-163.


  1. The National Research Program (NRP) is one of Canada’s leading research-funding agencies on homelessness. An initiative of the National Secretariat on Homelessness, the NRP’s mandate is to increase understanding of the magnitude, characteristics and causes of homelessness through a call for proposals process.