The problem with homeless counts

Homelessness is a precarious situation leaving thousands of individuals and families to face various forms of housing instability.  From the most recognizable face of homelessness (those living on the street) to the invisible faces of homelessness (families living in overcrowded spaces and people couch surfing just to keep a roof over their head), the many levels of homelessness make it difficult to provide an accurate picture of the enormity of the problem.  Homeless counts have become common place across the country, and currently a parliamentary Motion is before the House of Commons to standardize this.  Not only is this proposal limited in scope, but it will not capture the aggregate problem of homelessness in Canada or offer concrete solutions to end the crisis.

Conservative MP Peter Goldring has brought forward a motion to standardize homeless counts in Canada.  Known as M-455, the motion is narrow in view and raises a number of red flags that make this motion dangerous for housing policy in Canada.   These flags include the mandating of ‘point in time’ counts which are never valid or reliable measurements of homeless; the call for a universal definition of what it means to be homeless, and fact that the government would rather use a powerless motion than a piece of legislation to address homelessness.   This motion does not have the strength or appropriate consideration of adequate housing policy and human rights and should not be adopted by the House of Commons or members serious about ending the housing crisis in Canada.

The Current Motion

“That, in the opinion of the House, one nationally standardized “point in time” should be recommended for use in all municipalities in carrying out homeless counts, with (a) nationally recognized definitions of who is homeless; (b) nationally recognized methodology on how the count takes place; and (c) the same agreed-upon criteria and methodology in determining who is considered to be homeless.”

CWP does not support this motion and does not think that motions, which are essentially gestures of support, should be used in place of legislation, which has the authority to make real changes.  And, if this motion is ever fulfilled, first, it will result in an invalid measurement of homelessness.  And then, if those invalid measurements are used to inform policy, that policy will be inadequate and will fail to adequately address the problem.  Let us explain:

i/             Critique of Homeless Counts

The motion is flawed because it is impossible to do a point in time “count” that accurately captures homelessness in its various manifestations.  In the report Estimating Homelessness, the authors identify that “who we define as homeless determines how we count them”. Using Hulchanski’s broad and inclusive definition of homelessness, it is very difficult to sample all of the individuals who are homeless.

 Individuals must self-identify as homeless

The methodology to sample homeless populations can be from an external source, such as by service-based methodology or by self-identification.

Sampling through an external source can lead to further challenges, as individuals who do not use services or do not “look homeless” may be excluded from the count.

 If homelessness is measured based on self-identification, one of the primary barriers to getting an accurate statistic to represent homelessness in Canada is that many people are unwilling to disclose that they are homeless. Individuals may be embarrassed or ashamed to admit to their housing situation. Many individuals become homeless due to violence at home or other very personal reasons, which may add to their embarrassment about disclosing that they are homeless.

Another barrier to self-identification is that persons may fear legal penalties for being homeless. For example, as Maria Foscarinis, Executive Director of the National Law Centre on Homelessness & Poverty (in Washington D.C.), identifies, “in some cities, families seeking shelter can be threatened with removal of their children; families living outside have extra incentive to avoid detection”. In Canada, families may fear that their children will be brought under the protection of the Children’s Aid Society, and as such they may be extremely reluctant to disclose that they are homeless.

The Count will exclude concealed homeless

“ ‘Concealed’ homelessness refers to people who are not absolutely homeless, but do not have adequate housing such as those who are temporarily living with friends (often referred to as “couch surfing”), living in unsafe or violent circumstances, or institutionalized because of lack of housing or support services in the community. Those who are precariously housed are living in such insecure circumstances that they are experiencing serious hardship, struggling to maintain their housing and are at serious risk of losing their housing” (here).

The City of Toronto conducted a homelessness count in 2006, which did not capture the diversity of individuals who experience homelessness in Canada. One of the main concerns in this count was that it did not take into account persons whose homelessness is invisible. The Wellesley Institute stated that “Invisibility is a survival strategy for homeless people, especially since Toronto adopted more restrictive measures in February of 2005. The city’s campaign to eliminate homeless people from Nathan Phillips Square and from under bridges and in parks has forced many homeless deeper into the urban infrastructure. Many don’t want to be identified. And they may not dress or act in a way that is assumed to be characteristic of homeless people.”

This also explains why a single definition of homelessness that focuses only on the visibly homeless is dangerous.  As David Hulchanski (a leading academic on housing issues in Canada) has stated,

“[t]here is no single definition of homelessness, but for policy and program purposes, homelessness is generally understood to mean the absence of a safe, secure and adequate place to live”.

One Day will not be representative of the issue

 The entire homeless population in Canada is especially difficult to capture with a point-in-time study. As the National Coalition for the Homeless (in Washington DC) reports:

“The high turnover in the homeless population documented by recent studies suggests that many more people experience homelessness than previously thought and that most of these people do not remain homeless. Because point-in-time studies give just a ‘snapshot’ picture of homelessness, they only count those who are homeless at a particular time. Over time, however, some people will find housing and escape homelessness while new people will lose housing and become homeless. Systemic social and economic factors (prolonged unemployment or sudden loss of a job, lack of affordable housing, domestic violence, etc.) are frequently responsible for these episodes of homelessness. Point-in-time studies do not accurately identify these intermittently homeless people, and therefore tend to overestimate the proportion of people who are so-called “chronically homeless” — particularly those who suffer from severe mental illness and/or addiction disorders and therefore have a much harder time escaping homelessness and finding permanent housing. For these reasons, point-in-time counts are often criticized as misrepresenting the magnitude and nature of homelessness”.

Government Debate

On Monday the motion was debated in the House of Commons and not surprisingly, those in defence of a standardized homeless count pointed to a need for statistics to help inform policy and to a number of current counts taking place across the country.  There was also some support for the current Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPS) and an effort to leverage the merits of this motion by connecting the two.  Thankfully, there was another side to this debate.

Some Members of Parliament aptly noted that this count will not lead to greater housing policy, nor is it associated with any funding, or long-term strategy.  The narrow focus on the visibly homeless will completely underestimate the problem (see the Wellesley Institutes Precarious Housing report). With the HPS only serving a portion of individuals visibly homeless, how would an inaccurate count lead to an accurate estimate of transition housing, housing supports, rent-geared-to-income programs or shelter spaces?  Furthermore – if the federal government won’t commit long-term funding to address the problem, what do they plan to do with this data?  Finally, how could any level of government confidently claim success to lowering the number of homeless people if they are unsure of the number of people couch surfing or precariously housed?  Success would have to be a term used loosely.

A Warning

Motion M-455 needs to be approached with caution, and examined through a lens that considers the larger homeless population – those visible on the streets and the thousands more that are invisible.  The motion as it stands cannot be supported as an example good housing policy or solutions to a growing housing crisis that continues to plague cities across the country.  What parliamentarians should do is spend their time introducing legislation that meets our international human rights obligations on adequate housing and developing a long-term strategy with funding attached, associated targets and timelines and clear goals.

As one of the richest countries in the world, anything less is unacceptable.