2. Do men and women have different needs, when experiencing homelessness?

There is sometimes a mistaken tendency to assume that “gender” means “women.” This does a great disservice to men and women alike. While we have been considering the experiences of cisgender and transgender women, we also need to recognize that this is not the extent of gender studies. Now that you have learned more about women’s experiences of homelessness, we encourage you to pause and consider how these experiences might differ from those of men. Again, we encourage you to think about people who identify as cisgender and transgender in your response. Do you think men and women have different needs when experiencing homelessness? Before you continue through the section, take a moment to record your thoughts in the space below. 


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As you probably have guessed by now, this question is not as straightforward as it seems. Just as we asked you to take on a gender-inclusive perspective when considering what is unique about women’s homelessness, we are going to encourage you to do the same here. We set out to see whether men and women have different needs when experiencing homelessness, with the stated recognition that these are not dichotomous categories. When we ask about men’s needs, we are considering cisgender men, who were born with genitalia that matches their gender-identity, but we also include transgender men and the range of gender diverse identities people may have that align with different forms and representations of masculinity. In the same way, we ask that you keep in mind that when we refer to women, we are talking about cisgender women but also transgender women and gender-diverse individuals whose identity may align with femininity in a range of different ways. Gender is, and never has been, as straight forward as a blue or pink nursery would have us believe.


With this caveat in mind, we set out to see whether the needs of men and women are different. If you are coming to this section after having read the one before, you will know that part of the answer must be ‘yes’ because we saw that women have unique needs. However, part of the answer is also ‘no’ because what people fundamentally need as basic human rights remain the same. Consider this starting point of the discussion as you watch this video of Dr. Naomi Thulien in which she explains further.


Dr. Naomi Thulien: Do men and women have different needs, when experiencing homelessness?

In this video, Dr. Naomi Thulien argues that while they may have different experiences, men and women fundamentally have the same needs. These include the need for a safe place to be, a living wage income, and to feel a sense of belonging. This video is 0:48 in length and has closed captions available in English.

Key Takeaways – Dr. Naomi Thulien: Do men and women have different needs, when experiencing homelessness? 

  1. Fundamentally the needs of men and women are the same. They include the need for a safe place to be, a living wage income, and to feel a sense of belonging.
  2. Meeting these needs while experiencing homelessness may be somewhat different for men than for women, but everyone essentially needs the same things out of life.


If we approach the question of whether men and women have different needs when experiencing homelessness from a human rights perspective – as we must – it is simple to see that people’s fundamental needs are the same. Everyone, regardless of their gender identity, needs safe and secure housing, equitable access to health care, a livable income, and to feel that they belong within their community. Where we see some differences arise is when we look at how to ensure men and women have their needs met.


In recent years, authors in a couple of studies, have examined quality of life variables for men and women experiencing homelessness and begun to pinpoint some of the areas where gender differences emerge. For instance, Gentil, Grenier, Bamvita, Dorvil, and Fleury (2019) conducted a study with 455 people who had current or previous experience of homelessness in Quebec. They found there were four clusters that emerged. Those with the highest reported quality of life were older women who had low functional disability and relatively few episodes of homelessness. A second cluster that emerged in the data with high quality of life scores were individuals living in temporary housing with relatively few mental health or substance use disorders. Lower quality of life was reported by the third cluster, comprised of middle-aged women living in temporary housing, with criminal records, personality disorders, and substance use disorders. Finally, the fourth cluster, who also reported low quality of life scores, were individuals with multiple homeless episodes, complex health problems, and frequent service use. Gentil et al., (2019) conclude from their data that the findings served to reinforce the need for programs that are adapted and tailored to the unique needs of individuals within these different groups. It is clear from this study that gender is a factor that intersects with quality of life variables, such as having housing, being in good physical and mental health, and having stability in one’s life.


In another study, Buccieri, Oudshoorn, Waegemakers Schiff, Pauly, Schiff, and Gaetz (2020) conducted a regression analysis of 343 people experiencing homelessness in Toronto, Victoria, Calgary, and Regina. They examined multiple variables that could contribute to positive or negative quality of life for men and women, as divided by self-reported gender. Some of the results were the same regardless of a person’s stated gender. For instance, men and women both reported that poor sleep quality and duration decreased their mental well-being. However, the results also clearly showed that there was some variability in quality of life reported by gender. In this study, it was found that having poor health led women to feel stressed and unsafe. The men who reported being in poor health reported having higher levels of depression, but also that improved health contributed to enjoyment of life, feeling relaxed, and being happy. These same links were not found for women, which suggests that physical health may be an underlying factor in negative mental well-being for women and men but in different ways (Buccieri et al., 2020).


Additional results from the Buccieri et al., (2020) study found that having regular access to food was particularly important to the emotional well-being of men and that going without it led to stress, loneliness, decreased life enjoyment, and feeling unsafe. Men also reported that when they were able to drink clean water and eat breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a snack throughout the day their mental health would improve. Access to food was a major quality of life issue for men, but not nearly as pressing for women, who reported that eating dinner was the only significant food-related factor leading to greater enjoyment of life. Clearly food is an important gendered variable. This is not to suggest that women do not need food as much as men do, but rather that women might be more used to going without and prioritizing the needs of others (such as their children) before their own. Men, particularly if cisgender or taking testosterone, might also require higher caloric intake and need a higher quantity of food to meet their daily goal.


An interesting finding that came out of the Buccieri et al., (2020) study was the direct relation between men feeling good and the absence of variables that made them feel bad. This may seem obvious, that a person would feel good if there was nothing making them feel bad. Yet, this same finding did not emerge for women. For women, there had to be components in their life that made them actively feel good, whereas men felt good if there was nothing making them feel bad. This finding suggests that one approach to improving men’s emotional well-being while experiencing homelessness, is to address the factors that are bothering them. Conversely, women may need strategies that not only remove factors making them feel bad, but also have approaches that actively make them feel good.


It is clear from these studies that women and men have the same fundamental needs – such as for housing, equitable access to health care, a livable income, and community inclusion – but that how (or whether) they get these needs met differs by their identified gender. We encourage you to keep this idea in mind – that the fundamental needs are the same, but the approach differs – as you watch this video from CBC that follows four men experiencing homelessness through their daily lives in Toronto. How might the video be different if they followed women as well?


This video shows the lives of four men in Toronto, living in shelters and in tent encampments. What the men say they need is simple. They want their own housing. They want to get a good night’s sleep. They want to work and be part of society. They want to be treated with respect. They don’t want to be eaten by rats. We asked you to watch the video while considering how the needs expressed might be different for men and women. We can take a leap of faith and say that women would also want housing, sleep, income, inclusion, respect, and to be free from infestations. Yet, we can also think about where some key differences might emerge. One of the key differences is that of safety. Whereas Frenchie said he felt safe living under a bridge in a tent, we know that many women seek accommodations inside even if in unsafe places. Whereas these were single men, women often are in mothering roles with their children in their care. The housing they need is very different than the housing a single adult man would need. This is not to suggest that men do not also parent while experiencing homelessness, but that much less is known about those who do.


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If we think about the video of the four men in Toronto, we can also see an example of what Buccieri et al., (2020) found about men’s wellness. For men, improved mental wellness results from taking away the things that are wrong. For Frenchie, removal of the rats would likely go a long way to increasing his well-being. Although, this is certainly not enough. Research on what men need has shown that they benefit from mental health programs that are community-based, flexible to allow for continuity of daily routines, offered in a secure environment, and incorporate mental health and social supports (Voisard, Whitley, Latimer, Looper, & LalibertĂ©, 2021). Men may face barriers to housing and service use related to mental health challenges, drugs or alcohol use, unaddressed trauma, and physical health limitations (COH & Blue Door, 2021). Certainly, these barriers also apply to many women experiencing homelessness, but the way they impact men and women are often different. Research has shown that having a social network is important for men, such as in managing chronic health conditions (Merdsoy, Lambert, & Sherman, 2020), yet developing these social networks may be challenging amidst the isolation of homelessness. We saw this in the video, as one man explained his friends do not know he lives in a shelter. It is difficult to seek support when you do not feel comfortable sharing this level of personal information.


Gender expression is a key factor here. Whether a person identifies as feminine, masculine, or anywhere along a gender spectrum has an impact on how they view themselves as well as on how others treat them. This is an unfortunate aspect that may lead men to resist showing vulnerability, women to hide as a means of self-protection, and everyone’s quality of life to be impacted by negative stereotypes and stigmas. In the next video, Dr. Kaitlin Schwan speaks about discrimination that people experiencing homelessness face, and why we need to approach solutions through a gender-based equity lens.


Dr. Kaitlin Schwan: Do men and women have different needs when experiencing homelessness?

In this video, Dr. Kaitlin Schwan discusses the gender specific needs of men, women, and gender diverse individuals, such as those who are transgender and/or two spirit. She notes that gender diverse individuals experience systemic discrimination in health care, education, and the criminal justice system, along with higher levels of violence, exclusions, and marginalization that make the needs of this group extremely urgent to address. Dr. Schwan further notes that gender specific supports and interventions need to be defined by the communities that use them, in line with seeing themselves as experts in their own lives and integrated into program and policy design. She argues that housing is a solution to all homelessness, but that we must also consider gender-specific factors. She cites findings from the 2021 Women’s National Housing and Homelessness Survey, which indicated that the break-up of a romantic relationship was the most common reason women reported losing their housing, as an example of the need for gender specific policies and program interventions. Dr. Schwan concludes by calling for an increase in Indigenous led and controlled community supports, particularly for Indigenous women, girls, and gender diverse individuals. This video is 3:30 in length and has closed captions available in English.

Key Takeaways – Dr. Kaitlin Schwan: Do men and women have different needs when experiencing homelessness?

  1. A group that experiences some of the greatest needs in the homelessness sector is gender diverse individuals, such as transgender and two spirit individuals. There is a lack of shelters and supports for this group.
    • This group of individuals experiences systemic discrimination in the health care system, school system, criminal justice system, and higher levels of violence, exclusions, and marginalization that make the needs of this group extremely urgent to address.
  2. There is a need for gender specific interventions and supports for men, women, and gender diverse individuals that are tailored across these groups and not generically applied.
    • These interventions and supports must be defined by the communities that use them, in line with seeing themselves as experts in their own lives and integrated into program and policy designs to addresses their needs.
  3. Housing is the solution to homelessness for all individuals, but we must also consider gender-specific needs.
    • Regardless of gender – women, men, gender diverse folks – need access to permanent, safe, and adequate housing, that enables them to remain in their community and with their children.
    • For women and gender diverse individuals, housing security is particularly important to recognize.
    • In the 2021 Women’s National Housing and Homelessness Survey participants were asked why they lost their housing and given a large range of responses to select from. The most common response was that women lost their housing due to a breakup of a relationship.
      • Women whose housing depends on being in a relationship – often with a man – is a group that particularly lacks security of tenure.
      • There is a need to develop programs and interventions that support this group, and address the underlying systemic issues, within a human rights, anti-discrimination, and equity framework.
  4. There is a need for increased Indigenous controlled and led supports and services to be implemented within Indigenous communities for women, girls, and gender diverse individuals.


When experiencing homelessness, all people have the same fundamental needs for housing, health, income, and inclusion but the particulars will be shaped by a person’s identity, including by their gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and ancestry. These factors will interact in ways that lead to different expressions and representations of gender on the street. What it means to be “a man” has traditionally been very narrowly defined as being associated with power, dominance, and strength without space for expressions of vulnerability, emotions, or need for support. What it means traditionally to be “a woman” has been similarly narrow and defined in opposition to men. This traditional structure leaves very little room for a person to express gender in complex ways. However, as we have tried to challenge you to consider throughout this chapter, these limited gender expressions are not how people actually engage with gender, nor do they capture the extent of gender identities. When we speak about the needs of women, we must consider the range of ways feminine gender is expressed, and when we speak about the needs of men, we must also consider the range of ways masculine gender is expressed. 

What do you think?

human head with light bulb as brain graphicJulia Wardhaugh (1999) has written that the streets are the quintessential male space, where men have freedom to make their presence known. Do you think this is true of all men or are some forms of masculinity given more privilege than others in the context of the street? What might make a man feel less comfortable within spaces associated with the street – like shelters and tent encampments?

As you consider this question, of how masculinity is expressed and whether some forms are more privileged than others, we invite you to read this section’s featured reading. The authors of this article examine sexual exploitation of homeless and street-involved boys living in Western Canada. As you read this article, we encourage you to reflect on what you have learned about the needs of women and men, and the diversity of gender identities and expressions that exist amongst people experiencing homelessness.

Featured Reading:

open book graphicSaewyc, E. M., Shankar, S., Pearce, L. A., & Smith, A. (2021). Challenging the stereotypes: Unexpected features of sexual exploitation among homeless and street-involved boys in western Canada. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(11), 5898.

Just as women each have their own individual experiences of homelessness that are shaped but not determined by gender, so too do men. In a three-year ethnographic study of a weekly floor hockey program in Edmonton, Koch, Scherer, and Holt (2018) observed that while the program was largely funded to reproduce a particular kind of traditional masculinity, what they actually observed was how participants use the program in diverse and sometimes contradictory ways to express themselves. We can see how there are gendered expectations placed on people experiencing homelessness, and how people may respond in ways that at times reaffirm them and at times challenge and resist them.


Dr. Jacqueline Kennelly (2020) has written about young men’s navigation of urban spaces, noting that while there is an internal logic to their practices under the conditions of extreme inequality that neoliberalism produces, they are also caught in a cycle of reinforcing their marginal positions through exposure to violence and criminalization by the state. In the next video, Dr. Kennelly explains that one reason she came to reflect upon expressions of masculinity stemmed from research she conducted with youth experiencing homelessness in Ottawa. She and her team were creating videos with these young people as part of a project entitled, “Encountering Democracy.” We first share a video of Dr. Kennelly speaking about the project and then invite you to watch the piece on youth and policing that was created during the study. We would like you here to think about the gendered aspects as you watch this film. We will explore policing and the criminalization of homelessness further in the chapter on Sociology & Crimino-Legal Studies.


Dr. Jacqueline Kennelly: Do men and women have different needs, when experiencing homelessness?

In this video, Dr. Jacqueline Kennelly shares a story a young man told her about entering a courthouse in Ottawa and being asked to remove his hat by the guard at the door. This story is used to demonstrate the ways in which gender expectations are taken up and enforced in public spaces in ways that are often different for men and women. While the same guard likely would not have asked a woman to remove her hat, the attention this young man received shows an additional level of policing that is more common of men’s experiences. This video is 5:19 in length and has closed captions available in English.

Key Takeaways – Dr. Jacqueline Kennelly: Do men and women have different needs, when experiencing homelessness?

  1. Men and women’s experiences of navigating public spaces can be very different.
    • The story of the young man entering the courthouse and being asked to remove his hat is an example of how young men, in particular, are policed in many ways that are different than other people.



In this section, we asked you to consider whether men and women have different needs when experiencing homelessness. Keeping with the theme of the book, this is a seemingly simple question with a rather complex answer. At the root of the question, we can see how men and women have the same very fundamental needs. Everyone, regardless of their gender identity, needs a safe and secure place to live, an income to support themselves and their dependents, to have access to health and mental health supports so they can be well, and to feel included and accepted by their society without facing discrimination. These are the same needs, and the same basic human rights, people of all gender identities are entitled to.


Where we see differences arise, is when we start to look more closely at how people express their needs and seek to have them met. We saw, for instance, that quality of life was impacted by gendered variables, particularly related to health, hygiene, and regular access to food. Whereas men reported feeling better when the things that bothered them were taken away, women needed targeted supports to help them feel good. These indicate very different approaches to meeting men’s and women’s needs, despite having the same ultimate needs overall.


We invited you to watch a video of four men’s experiences in Toronto and challenged you to consider how the video might be different had women also been included. We saw through this section that gender expectations are a key determinant in shaping people’s experiences of homelessness, but that we cannot (nor should not) rely on outdated and narrow definitions of what gender means. When we do so, we limit our ability to understand people’s experiences, self-expression, and basic needs. We concluded this chapter by asking you to rethink traditional notions of hegemonic masculinity that are harmful to cisgender and transgender men, gender diverse individuals, and society as a whole. If we want to understand how the needs of men and women are different when experiencing homelessness, we must discard outdated notions of gender and open our minds to a broader, more inclusive, and more accurate spectrum of gender possibilities.


Podcast: Do men and women have different needs, when experiencing homelessness? (10:30)

Click the link below to listen to all of the researchers answer the question “Do men and women have different needs, when experiencing homelessness?” in audio format on our podcast!




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Understanding Homelessness in Canada Copyright © 2022 by Kristy Buccieri, James Davy, Cyndi Gilmer, and Nicole Whitmore is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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