Hiding in plain sight: The hidden homeless and invisible disabilities


adult alone boy building
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A bright spark and proud Touretter active in the neurodiversity community–let’s call her Maddie–recently shared that she was suddenly homeless, forced to bunk down at night in shelters, friend’s homes and rooming houses.

Maddie is not alone. She is one of Canada’s many “hidden homeless.”

According to Statistics Canada, the hidden homeless are people who “have no immediate prospect of permanent or stable housing.”

In 2014, about 2.3 million Canadians aged 15 and over—representing 8% of the population—reported that sometime in their lives they had to temporarily live with family, friends, in their car or somewhere else because they had nowhere else to live.

That’s 1 in 10 Canadians.

You are more likely to end up homeless if you’re a victim of childhood abuse, identify as Indigenous or disabled.

It’s my community–those people with learning disabilities–that have some of the highest rate of hidden homelessness in Canada.

“With regard to the different types of disabilities, those who reported having a mental or psychological illness (21%) or a learning disability (20%) had the highest likelihood of also reporting an experience of hidden homelessness.” (Statistics Canada)

This chart from Statistics Canada shows the link between disability and homelessness:

homeless and disabled

The Homeless Hub  has also documented the link between disabilities, unemployment, poverty and homelessness. It’s simple: without steady employment, it’s hard to find and keep affordable accommodation.

These are Canadians statistics, but the link between dyslexia and homelessness has also been identified in England.

Invisible disability = lack of emergency services = discrimination

I’ve often talked about how invisible many of us in the learning disability community feel. Same for anyone with an “invisible disability” or identifying as neurodivirgent, which includes those of us with Tourette Syndrome, dyslexia and autism (just to name a few). We’re often not included in discussions that affect our lives. Nor in designing programs and services that serve our needs.

This exclusion begins in school, continues when we’re looking for work, and rears its ugly head when we most need help–and as I found out with Maddie, even when we need to access emergency housing. In fact, it’s this exclusion that causes us to be more vulnerable to homelessness in the first place.

Though the risk is well documented, the needs of the homeless and disabled are yet to be addressed by emergency housing services or shelters.

Here it’s important to note that ALL homeless people suffer from invisibility and discrimination, and this is compounded if you’re from a racialized group, have a mental illness or a disability.

Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane calls it what it is–systemic discrimination–in a new report by the Ontario Human Rights Commission:

“Systemic discrimination exists in the way we legislate and design our social assistance and housing programs, in our eligibility requirements and procedures,” said OHRC Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane, Toronto Shelter Network’s 2018 Conference.

No safe space

Consider what your home means to you. Now consider what it means to Maddie. I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s a matter of life and death. She needs a quiet, private, SAFE space to manage the physical and neurological pressures made worse by triggers, such as anxiety and hypersensitivities, and recover from simply being around any kind of stimulus.

What she needs, and what she requested of the shelter system, is simple enough:

“The accommodation I needed was a quiet space to help my hypersensitive system decompress, so I need ‘no stimulus’ in order to do that,” explains Maddie. “Stimulus registers as ‘threat’ in my brain.”

But she didn’t get that.

There is no quiet space, nor a private room with a door, at most shelters. You sleep on a cot, in a crowded room full of strangers, with no walls. Maddie tried to make do, and found a space that she considered adequately “safe.” But a shelter worker took it away from her, triggering a tic attack that lasted one hour. Add to that, Maddie was concerned that workers were offering inappropriate interventions–treating Tourette as a mental illness (which it is not).

Exhausted, she left the shelter, for as she says “things were spiraling downwards quickly.”

That started her journey from one rooming house to another. Many aren’t clean, comfortable or safe.

It’s hard to believe that there’s no emergency accommodation or support that addresses the needs of someone with Tourette Syndrome, or any other invisible disability for that matter.

I didn’t want to believe it at first. I wanted someone to prove me wrong. So I spent many hours on the phone and computer researching and talking to government services, politician’s offices, churches, disability groups, women’s shelters, homeless help lines, you name it, but none were aware of the needs of someone with Tourette Syndrome (and worse, some were dismissive and rude).

Maddie had made these calls herself. For two months.

We both stumbled upon the same unfortunate truth: There are multiple agencies, phone numbers, offices, forms and wait lists–and none of them could/would help with her immediate and very serious need for shelter. They send you off to another organization or person, who sends you off to another, and then another.

Just requesting help is exhausting, let alone finding it.

And then to be told that the wait list for affordable housing is ten years or more in Toronto (I have this is in writing if you don’t believe me).

More than one person suggested, unhelpfully, that Maddie should be able to find a shared apartment for $500/month. “Like everyone else does.” Does it matter, I wonder, that most shared apartments are more than $500/month in Toronto? That this is not a viable option for many, let alone Maddie?  That landlords specify or imply no social assistance, no dogs, no unemployed, no disabilities? (But hey, if you’re willing to trade sex for free rent, you’re options are limitless.)

It made me cringe.

It kept me up at night.

And the more people I talked to, the worse it got.

One person at a well-known woman’s shelter told me that Maddie would increase her chances of finding a shelter bed if she put her support dog into “foster care.”

Really? That’s the best you’ve got? To separate her from her support dog who is trained to reduce anxiety, and assist during panic and tic attacks?

Equally disturbing is the fact that these services will readily admit that most shelters aren’t accessible–whether it be ramp access for a wheelchair or a private space to have an anxiety attack.

So what about non-governmental agencies? There are a few charitable groups filling the housing gap for people with physical or intellectual disabilities (such as L’Arche), but precious little I could find for people with invisible disabilities.

The autism community has taken note of this gap in services, and Autism Ontario has written a call to action. Echoes of the problem that affects everyone in neurodiverse community.

If you or your child is dyslexic, autistic, has Tourette Syndrome or ADHD (all most of the above, which can happen!), take note:

Without family or friends, you’re on your own when you’re homeless.

Long story short: what’s the impact?

Based on Maddie’s experience, it means you’ll have a harder time accessing and using homeless program and services. It means you can’t use the shelter system, and you’ll be forced into even more precarious housing situations or to become dependent on the kindness of friends and strangers.

It will make you unsafe. It will make you unwell. It will marginalize you. It will perpetuate the cycle of unemployment, poverty and homelessness.

My mom’s favourite saying keeps coming to mind: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Well then, if that’s true, Maddie must be the strongest person in the world.

What to do?

How hard would it be to fix this problem? To be honest, the solutions seem easier to implement than actually navigating emergency housing services (so you could ask Maddie to implement these changes for you; she’s up to the challenge).

To provide safe emergency housing for people with disabilities, we need:

  • shelters and homeless services to meet accessibility requirements
  • social services and shelter workers to get sensitivity training
  • homeless strategies that address disabilities
  • disability strategies that address homelessness
  • more than waiting lists for affordable accommodations; help people find a place to live (what specifically are viable housing options for someone living on social assistance? can you provide transportation to and from apartment visits? etc.)

To promote employment and prevent homelessness we need to create:

  • job opportunities and accessible/accommodating workplaces (and I’m very excited to see the implementation of the new federal accessibility legislation)affordable housing for all (see what Finland is doing)
  • guaranteed income or equivalent

Am I missing anything? Let me know.

I’m grateful to Maddie for sharing her experience with the world. She’s forced me to see something, that like many Canadians, I didn’t want to look at. Let her story be a catalyst for change.


A petition is calling on the Government of Canada to ensure the that housing be barrier free, accessible and inclusive: Petition e-1768 – E-petitions.

I would add that we need accessible housing services, and more affordable housing.


Towards inclusion of people with disabilities in the workplace, Homeless Hub

People with disabilities, Homeless Hub

Five things you should know about autism and homelessness

Autistic people at greater risk of becoming homeless — new research

Autism Ontario housing position statement

Disability makes poverty likelier than ever: report (Toronto Star)

Hidden Homelessness in Canada (Statistics Canada)

Federal accessibility legislation (Government of Canada)

‘Too Far Gone’: Dyslexia, Homelessness and Pathways into Drug Use and Drug Dependency

How Oshawa’s new mayor recovered from addiction to get off the street?

Ontario Human Rights Commission takes the pulse on human rights in Ontario (October 2018)

  • “Social invisibility is one of the largest barriers to progressive realization of the social and economic rights of street-affected people,” OHRC Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane.