Restricted access: the role of social capital in mitigating absolute homelessness among immigrants and refugees in the GVRD.

Author:D'Addario, Silvia
Position:Greater Vancouver Regional District


The housing patterns of newcomers mark a primary indicator for their successful integration. However, different groups of people have varied access to the stock of housing in Canada. The purpose of this paper is to examine the role that social capital plays in housing trajectories of immigrants with particular attention to the experiences of refugee claimants. In this paper we draw upon the results of a 2004-2005 study on the profile of absolute and relative homelessness among immigrants, refugees, and refugee claimants in the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD). We highlight the importance of social networks in the housing careers of newcomers, and argue that access to social networks varies according to the mode of entry for immigrants (e.g., skilled immigrants vs. refugees). We find that refugee claimants are particularly vulnerable, given their combination of uncertain legal status, lack of official language ability, and unfamiliarity with Canadian society. They are the most likely of all newcomers to "fall between the cracks" of the housing system. We discuss the benefits of social capital for immigrants and refugees, especially the key role that social capital plays in the integration process.


Les preferences des nouveaux arrivants en matiere de logement constituent un indicateur primaire pour la reussite de leur integration. Cependant, l'acces au parc de logements au Canada varie selon les groupes. Le but de cet article est d'examiner le role clue le capital social joue clans les trajectoires des immigrants en matiere de logement, avec une attention particuliere pour l'experience de demandeurs du statut de refugie. Darts cet article nous puisons a partir des resultats d'une etude entreprise en 2004-2005 sur le profil du sans abrisme absolu et relatif parmi les immigrants, les refugies et les demandeurs de statut de refugie clans le District Regional du Grand Vancouver (DRGV). Nous soulignons l'importance des reseaux sociaux dans le parcours de nouveaux arrivants en matiere de logement et soutenons que l'acces aux reseaux sociaux varie selon le mode d'entree des immigrants (par ex., les immigrants qualifies a l'oppose des refugies). Nous constatons clue les demandeurs de statut de refugie sont particulierement vulnerables, etant donne qu'ils combinent en eux-memes l'incertitude du statut juridique, des faiblesses par rapport aux langues officielles, et le manque de familiarite avec la societe canadienne. De tousles nouveaux arrivants, ils sont les plus susceptibles de passer entre les mailles du filet du systeme de logement. Nous traitons des avantages du capital social pour les immigrants et les refugies, surtout le role cle que joue le capital social dans le processus d'integration.


"Vancouver Housing Least Affordable" pronounces a recent headline, (l) According to a Royal Bank of Canada report, housing costs for the average detached bungalow now account for 57.5 per cent of average pre-tax household income in Vancouver. (2) Rapidly rising prices in the housing market are having a predictable impact, placing a higher proportion of the population at risk of homelessness. (3) The severe challenges faced by the Canadian-born population in gaining access to affordable housing are compounded for newcomers. This paper will draw from a 2004-2005 study on the profile of absolute and relative homelessness among immigrants, refugees, and refugee claimants in the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD). (4) We examine the connections between (relative and absolute) homelessness and immigrant settlement. We concentrate on the important issue of social capital, and how it can be used to help newcomers settle into Canada. However, we also argue that newcomers have variable access to social networks (and therefore social capital). Given the combination of uncertain legal status, lack of official language ability, and unfamiliarity with Canadian society, refugee claimants are the most likely of all newcomers to "fall between the cracks" in terms of access to relevant social networks, and have limited means to offset barriers to finding housing. This latter point is often overlooked in the literature on social capital and immigrant settlement. We aim here to understand the dynamics of in-group systems of support, and highlight both the positive features of social capital and also the limitations faced by those lacking it. In the process, we reveal an important weakness in theories of social capital.

GVRD Study on Homelessness

This research is based on a study that incorporated qualitative and quantitative methods to explore three key issues (see Appendix A for a brief explanation of the methodology). We investigated the degree of absolute homelessness of newcomers through a survey of homeless shelters; we investigated relative homelessness through an analysis of the housing trajectories (retrospective) of successful refugee claimants (SRCs); and we investigated both relative and absolute homelessness using a survey of immigrants that asked them to itemize the level of in-group support that they were either providing or receiving (we refer to this part of our study as the Immigrant and Refugee Housing Survey, or IRHS).

Our principal objective is to consider the ways in which social capital mitigates against the most serious forms of homelessness. We employ a broad definition of homelessness that includes a range of circumstances from being without permanent shelter (i.e., "rootlessness"), through various forms of relative homelessness, such as "sofa surfing" and crowding. The former definition refers to those people who live without shelter and therefore reside on the streets or rely on public facilities such as emergency shelters (often defined as absolute homelessness); while the latter refers to those people who possess shelter, but are subject to substandard, unsafe, and/or temporary conditions. (5)

The Economic Position of Newcomers

Authors point to the increasing evidence that immigrants do not fare as well economically as their Canadian-born counterparts. (6) The economic assimilation model has dominated the general understanding of immigrant integration, and asserts that although immigrants earn less than the average Canadian-born person, this gap narrows over time. This long-standing theory of economic incorporation has recently been challenged. Garnett Picot reports that immigrants entering Canada during the 1970s have nearly reached economic parity with the average Canadian-born citizen. (7) After spending more than twenty years in Canada, the 1970s male cohort earned 97 per cent of the earnings of the "like" Canadian (adjusting for age, education, etc.). Immigrants arriving during the 1980s earned approximately 85 per cent of incomes earned by their Canadian-born counterparts after sixteen to twenty years in Canada. Finally, the 1990s cohort earned 70 per cent of the average Canadian-born income, after six to ten years in Canada. These findings are roughly consistent for both men and women immigrants entering during the same time period. Therefore, more recent cohorts have experienced both a lower relative income upon entering Canada (compared with earlier cohorts), and a delayed catch-up period. Further, the same research shows that even well-educated immigrants share this economic disadvantage. Picot explains that educated immigrant males arriving during the 1970s entered the Canadian labour market earning 82 per cent of the earnings of the average male Canadian. By the 1990s, new immigrant males earned only 50 per cent of their like counterparts. (8) The trend for educated women is similar. These financial setbacks translate into difficulty accessing affordable and adequate housing.

Picot also shows that between 1980 and 2000, the proportion of immigrant family incomes that fell below the low-income cut-off (LICO) has risen considerably. (9) In 1980, 24.6 per cent of immigrant families were classified in the low-income category, but this was the case for 31.3 per cent in 1990, and by 2000 the proportion had risen to 35.8 per cent. In contrast, corresponding figures for the Canadian-born declined from 17.2 per cent in 1980 to 14.3 per cent in 2000. Reil and Harvey concentrate on the Toronto case, showing that visible minority immigrants have experienced the greatest increase in poverty levels there, from 20.9 per cent below LICO in 1991 to 32.5 per cent in 1996. (10) Recent economic changes have therefore had uneven social consequences, and have been especially hard on immigrants.

Pendakur and Pendakur extend the general story of income dynamics into the labour market, and show that recent immigrants earn wages well below the Canadian average. (11) In Vancouver, the average Canadian-born earned $26,213 in 1991, compared with $18,208 for immigrants who had been in Canada less than ten years. In addition, 42 per cent of this group of immigrants in Vancouver lived below the LICO, almost triple the poverty rate for the Canadian-born. As a result of below-average earnings, housing and rent affordability is a critical issue for new Canadians. In 1996, 21 per cent of immigrant households suffered from "core housing need," which refers to a combination of poor housing quality and problems with affordability. Ley further reports that poverty tends to be highest for immigrants who have less than high school education, are females, do not speak English at home, or are of non-European ethnicity. (12)

On this latter point, Hiebert...

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