Extent of the phenomenon

It is hard to know precisely how many people are homeless in Montreal. In 1998, the Institut de la Statistique du Québec estimated that 28 214 individuals had visited a refuge, a popular soup or a drop-in center. Among them, 45% had been homeless in the previous year.

In 2005, the Ministère de la Santé et des Services sociaux estimated that 30 000 individuals had been homeless in Montreal for at least some time during the year .

Portrayal of homelessness

There have been several changes in the landscape of homelessness in the last years. Women, young adults, elders and members of the First Nations are more and more present in the streets. This population is also increasingly affected by health problems.

Mental health

It is estimated that between 30% and 50% of homeless individuals have a mental illness. Severe mental disorders, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression affect 10% of these persons.

  During the last 12 months For life
Mental disorders 43,3% 17,7%
Alcohol or drug-related disorders 45,6% 20,5%

Source: Bonin, J.-P., Fournier, L., Blais, R. et Perreault, M. (2005).

Substance-related disorders

Addictions to alcohol or drugs also affect more than half of the homeless population with mental disorders.

Justice issues

An increasing number of homeless individuals who also have a mental disorder are involved with the justice system. The increasing number of problems that affect this population is a challenge for delivering adequate services and interventions.

Homelessness, mental health and justice

Almost all the studies on the interplay between homelessness, mental health and justice have been conducted in the United States. Among homeless adults with mental disorders, these studies report lifetime arrest rates between 77% and 90%. Other studies also show lifetime incarceration rates between 50% and 60%.

Predictors of contacts with the criminal justice system include:

  • male gender
  • younger age
  • concurrent substance abuse
  • longer duration of homelessness.


Victimization rates are also very high among the homeless individuals with a mental illness. One study estimates that  45% of  them had been victimized in the last month. Another study found that women are particularly at risk of victimization, with lifetime rates of physical or sexual abuse between 74% and 97%.

It is thus essential both to examine these issues to a Canadian population, and to deepen our understanding of the complex links between homelessness, mental health and justice, particularly in the context of housing programs. A sub-study of the At Home project, conducted in part at the Douglas Institute, aims to do just that.

Laurence Roy/Anne Crocker