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Canada Rates of shelter use higher for indigenous people, study shows

A worker prepares beds at the Gateway Shelter in Surrey, B.C., on Nov. 6, 2015.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Fewer beds remain empty each night in Canada's emergency homeless shelters as users stay days, sometimes weeks, longer than they did a decade ago, even as their overall numbers decline.

Within that population of almost 137,000 shelter users are nearly 3,000 veterans and up to 45,820 aboriginals, a group over-represented in homeless shelters compared to their percentage of the general population in every community looked at in a newly released federal study.

The findings of the federal review of 10 years of data from more than 200 emergency shelters nationwide paint one of the most detailed pictures yet of the population of shelter users, but also raise a number of questions for experts searching for an explanation behind the numbers.

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Why, for instance, are more than half of female veterans under age 30, whereas male veterans are over 40, the average age of shelter users? Is it something more directly tied to their service or maybe prior domestic abuse?

"It raises more questions because it's just a number, but it's a number that doesn't fit. So when a number doesn't fit, it means we need to figure out what else is going on," said Cheryl Forchuk, a professor of nursing at Western University in London, Ont., who has studied homeless veterans.

Federal researchers estimate that there are 2,950 military veterans accessing emergency shelters, or about 2.2 per cent of shelter users, a number higher than the 2,250 federal researchers estimated in a groundbreaking study more than a year ago.

Their numbers in shelters mirror those in the general population, unlike aboriginals whose rates of shelter use are on average 10 times higher than for the general population and 20 times higher for indigenous seniors.

There were also 5,036 immigrants and almost 1,100 refugees who visited a shelter in the last year of the study period that covered nearly three-quarters of the total emergency shelter beds in the country.

Nationally, shelters are running at just over 92 per cent capacity on any given night, a 10-point increase from 2005. The report's authors note that the overall capacity in Canada's emergency shelter system, which is about 15,000 beds, has not changed significantly since 2005.

While the overall number of shelter users has dropped, their length of stay has become longer. Families and seniors, for instance, are likely to stay more than three weeks in shelters compared to the approximately nine days recorded in 2005.

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"The fact that people are staying in shelters longer, that's a bad sign because that's going to cost more. The longer someone's homeless, the worse everything gets in their life and the harder it is to get people housed and stabilized," said Stephen Gaetz, director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.

The results released Monday mark the first time that federal researchers have estimated in detail the number of aboriginals, veterans, immigrants and refugees using emergency shelters.

The study looked at information on 1.9 million shelter stays at more than 200 of the 400 emergency shelters across Canada between 2005 and 2014 and provide key indicators for policy makers about large-scale trends in the homeless population.

The numbers don't take into account stays at shelters for women escaping domestic violence, or those set up specifically for refugees.

The country is expected to have a more detailed look at the veterans homeless population, as well as aboriginals and refugees among others, when federal researchers release a more complete study later this fall that takes into account shelter numbers and results from the first federally organized, point-in-time count of homeless populations in 30 Canadian cities.

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