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A homeless camp where approximately 150 people are living at a parking lot on Port of Vancouver property adjacent to Crab Park, in Vancouver on June 10, 2020.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

A new research project shows women experiencing homelessness in Canada are largely invisible and falling through major gaps in support systems – and into dangerous situations.

The study, led by the Women’s National Housing and Homelessness Network, says the scope is dramatically underestimated because women are more likely to rely on precarious and sometimes dangerous support, such as by sleeping on couches or trading sex for housing.

This means the scale of homelessness among women, girls and gender-diverse people is larger than official estimates would suggest.

Kaitlin Schwan, senior researcher at the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, says Canada’s emergency shelters were already turning away nearly 1,000 women and children a day before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

She warns the pandemic’s disproportionate economic impacts, particularly on racialized women, will mean more will soon become homeless as eviction moratoriums begin to lift.

The study, which is the first ever comprehensive national portrait of women’s homelessness in Canada, also found homeless women are at much higher risk of violence.

Data shows more than 37 per cent of homeless women have experienced a sexual assault, compared to 8.2 per cent of men.

Women that do access emergency shelters are often further harmed by bureaucratic policies, including the prospect of losing custody of their children.

Schwan says COVID-19 offers Canada an opportunity to reimagine its response to homelessness, especially as public conversations focused on systemic barriers that cause disproportionately negative outcomes for some populations.

The authors of the study are calling on Canada to take a more gender-sensitive approach to homelessness as a way to prevent large numbers of women from returning to violent and precarious situations.

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