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Vancouver’s homeless count results are late, not that it matters

June 17, 2015

van-homeless-count-poster

There are two or three questions that I have about the City of Vancouver’s count of homeless people. One is specifically about the last count, which took place on March 23-24, 2015: namely, what’s holding up the release of the preliminary results?

It’s been nearly three months. That’s much longer than we’ve had to wait for the results from any of the city’s three previous counts:

Year Date conducted Preliminary results
2010 March 22-23 April 8
2012 March 27 May 29
2013 March 13 April 17

Last year’s 2014 region-wide, one day, homeless count took place March 12 and the preliminary numbers were released in six weeks — by April 23 — half the time we’ve been waiting for word on the City of Vancouver’s stand-alone 2015 count.

If I had to guess, I’d say that the hold up probably has something to do with the city’s apparent requirement that all such information be conveyed to the public in the form of colourful and carefully-designed PowerPoint-like presentations featuring big pictures and short sentences, as typified by last year’s City of Vancouver Urban Forest Strategy: 2014 or the Vancouver Bird Strategy January 2015.

The city doesn’t like to throw this sort of thing at the public raw. It likes to cook it a bit first.

Why am I waiting on results from an unnecessary count?

The only reason I’m waiting on numbers is because the city insists on performing its own annual homeless count in between the regional count which takes place every three years.

So my second question (or is it the third already?) is more general and has to do with asking why the City of Vancouver even performs a stand-alone homeless count.

If the city didn’t waste its time, and we all relied on the results of the 2014 regional count and waited patiently for the next regional count in 2017, what would be lost in the city’s ability to address homelessness? I would argue nothing at all. And what would be gained? Certainly the money that the city spends every two out of three years to perform its arguably redundant count.

I don’t think the city and region are counting on the same thing

homeless-chart-2002-2014

The Metro Vancouver and City of Vancouver homeless counts, with 2015 extrapolated.

If the regional counts of homelessness across Metro Vancouver have been about assessing the need for and the impact of policies and programs then I would argue that the City of Vancouver’s decision to begin performing its own homeless count in 2010 was entirely about public relations.

The Greater Vancouver Regional Steering Committee on Homelessness (RSCH) has conducted a region-wide count of homeless people every three years since 2002. The count takes place over 24-hours and covers 11 municipalities including the city of Vancouver. There have been five RSCH counts in the last 13 years, with the last one being in 2014.

As the city of Vancouver has always been included in the regional triennial count — which, I understand, costs the city absolutely nothing — it’s a question why Vancouver decided to institute its own annual count of homelessness between regional counts beginning in 2010 — using the exact same methodology as the regional count but at a reported cost of $75,000.

I would argue that the city administration of Mayor Gregor Robertson was trying to make political hay out of the large drop in homelessness brought about by the provincial government opening its wallet in order to stuff as many homeless people as possible into shelters for the duration of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.

And if nothing else, the 2010 count did illustrate how the city and province were able to sweep homeless people into shelters.

But the city and province already knew about this drop in unsheltered homelessness. They knew exactly how many people had been hastily signed up on welfare and stuck in shelters, as did the people on the front lines of addressing homelessness in the city.

The 2010 homeless count was only really news to the general public. The count had little if any policy benefit,  it was pure P.R.

Everyone could’ve waited a year for the 2011 regional count to tell them same thing and more.

The 2011 count, not only showed the rise in the number of sheltered homeless against the proportional drop in the number of unsheltered but it showed the persistence of the drop a year on after the Olympics, which would’ve been useful news for policy makers.

The city’s stand-alone counts in 2012 and 2013 seemed to show a static situation; that the line was being held against total homeless, which stayed at or near 1600 people — though the number of sheltered dropped and the number of unsheltered rose (not by much though).

The regional 2014 count told a very different story. It showed a dramatic increase in the number of Vancouver’s homeless from 1600 to 1803, or an extra 203 people.

This was only a 12.6 percent increase year-on-year but the trouble was that the number of unsheltered homeless people had more than doubled since the 2013 count, from 273 to 536.

In 2014 the regional count found that an additional 262 people were sleeping rough on the streets of Vancouver!

Quite a difference a year can make.

The city of Vancouver says that it takes pains to make its homeless count compatible with the region’s, performing the count in a 24-hour period and otherwise using the exact same methodology used by the RSCH’s count.

The best that one should be able to say then is that the city’s count is just as inaccurate as the RSCH’s regional count.

But, as I say, the city’s stand-alone count is too tainted in my mind by political opportunism to be trustworthy — if a point-in-time count can ever be described that way.

Useful as long as you don’t count on it too much

The RSCH freely admits that its triennial snapshot is a policy tool of specific and limited value. It is meant to help identify trends and monitor the impact of the RSCH Regional Homelessness plan. It is not expected to produce an accurate count of the total homeless population in Metro Vancouver but rather a quick and dirty sample.

The RSCH explains that its method only takes into account a percentage of the visible homeless, which it describes as just the tip of the iceberg compared to the uncounted number of hidden homeless.

For example, the final report of the RSCH’s 2014 count compares its finding of only 381 couch surfers across Metro Vancouver with a 2008 estimate that there were up to 23,500 hidden homeless across the region.

 Numbers never lie, the people who use them do that

If the gusher of provincial funds to hide homelessness during the 2010 Winter Olympics made a homeless count seem like a good political idea in 2010, then the post-Olympic pledges of a veritable tsunami of cash, from both the provincial and federal governments, must’ve made a yearly homeless count seem like a public relations slam dunk.

It must’ve seemed like nothing could stop the City of Vancouver from ending homelessness and reaping the political rewards.

There was all the money that the governments of B.C. and Canada were committing to pour into Metro Vancouver social housing (I think it may have topped half-a-billion dollars by 2014) and there was the Housing First crowd arguing persuasively that social housing wasn’t just a part of complex solution to ending homelessness, it could very simply be the entire solution.

I don’t believe that Mayor Gregor Robertson and his Vision Vancouver party were simply spouting hype. I think they really believed that they could end homelessness.

Even with homelessness rising every year since 2010. Even after the results of the 2014 regional count showed that Vancouver had the highest homeless population in its history, the city administration remained undaunted.

In July of 2014, city manager Penny Ballem was still talking confidently about ending homelessness in time for the city’s March 2015 count. She ran down a list of building projects that would be coming on line in order to illustrate that the target was doable.

“This is not magical thinking,” Ballem told the Courier newspaper.

Well we don’t know the results of that 2015 homeless count just yet but we all know that it won’t show an end to homelessness or anything close.

I strongly believe that making homelessness disappear is an impossible trick.

I also believe, that to be effective, the magician/con artist/politician must at least be honest with themselves.

But where the issue of homelessness was concerned, I think that the money and (yes) the magical thinking of Housing First, was so dazzling that Mayor Robertson, city manager Ballem, and the whole Vision Vancouver team actually tricked themselves into believing their own hype.

Other unanswered questions

A lot has happened over the last five years. For one thing, the Canadian government is beginning to require municipalities to perform point-in-time (PiT) homeless counts in order to qualify for federal homeless funding over $200,000.

I don’t know if the Canadian government is requiring that the PiT counts be done every year; I would hope not. The three-yearly frequency of the Metro Vancouver homeless count seems more than sufficient.

In the United States, municipalities seeking federal dollars are required to perform yearly PiT counts but alternating between counting sheltered and unsheltered homeless.

In the past, the Metro Vancouver count was partially funded by the Canadian government but not the City of Vancouver’s stand-alone count. I don’t know if that has changed or not.

Even if it turns out that the City of Vancouver can now justify its yearly homeless counts under federal funding regulations, it won’t change my mind about them being an unnecessary waste of time and money.

I don’t think Vancouver’s yearly counts tell us anything more that Metro Vancouver’s three-yearly counts; certainly not enough to justify the cost.

Contrary to the old saying that you should “measure twice and cut once,” I don’t believe that counting homeless people twice, or three times as often speeds up the process of helping them get back to being more productive and self-supporting citizens.

I think yearly homeless counts just suck funding away from the programs and services that really do help homeless people.

Almost got me this time

Nearly three months ago, on Tuesday, March 24, amid the hustle and bustle of the Go Green bottle depot in East Vancouver, I noticed a fresh-faced young person loitering in the parking lot. She was clutching a clipboard to her chest with one hand and holding a bag of candies with the other.

Oh right, I thought. This was the second day of the City of Vancouver’s 7th annual attempt to count its homeless population.

In 10 years of living on the streets I had been overlooked by all the various city and regional homeless counts.

But this year it had finally occurred to someone to station an enumerator at a bottle depot.

It looked certain that my life of homelessness would finally count for something.

Alas, the enumerator left five minutes before I finished cashing out my load of bottles at 4:30 p.m!

Another homeless person I know — a 16-year veteran of Vancouver’s streets (also never previously counted) — had better luck than I did (if you can call it that). He told me that sometime on Monday evening two enumerators woke him up from a deep sleep in order to both record his homelessness and ask him a sheet full of questions.

For his cooperation he received one candy and one cigarette — as much benefit as he or any other homeless person in the city of Vancouver will ever see out of this homeless count. Click the images to enlarge them.

4 Comments
  1. Sandra permalink

    I truly do not see how such documentation helps the homeless. Being as homeless numbers continue to grow, data collection is clearly not the answer. The cost of producing such reports would be better invested right at the source rather than for producing “deliverables” so bureaucrats’ can justify collecting their bonuses.

    • Measuring a pothole helps you determine the size of the problem and estimate the amount of asphalt you will need but you’d be wasting your time measuring it precisely in millimetres — inches or feet are probably sufficient. And measuring, by itself, like you point out, won’t fill the hole.

      I believe point-in-time counts of homeless populations have a limited utility as a measuring tool. I believe the region’s three-yearly frequency is more than sufficient and I believe that the regional count is done in the proper spirit — as a policy aid. I look forward to enough comparable PiT counts occurring in municipalities across Canada so that we may finally get a glimpse of the real shape of homelessness in Canada.

      Unfortunately, I believe that Vancouver’s stand-alone count has always been an empty P.R. exercise. I’d rather the cost had been put towards a concrete utility, say, opening the shower facilities at the Gathering Place on Helmecken Street in downtown Vancouver for one more hour a week, or, um, putting a water fountain in Fairview. 🙂

  2. Slowcrow permalink

    Or maybe a ‘lavamae’ type vehicle, setting up at various bottle depots. Whatever the figures that are reached they are misleading and cannot help to come up with ‘THE SOLUTION’. There will be a constant inflow. It could be as simple as no more commercial one-story buildings, put at least one floor of housing above, every school, park, church, graveyard have a humble, detached living space. Both of these add to security and ‘community’. Find space for the thousands of well cared for mobile homes that are junked every year. I guess i am talking suburban here, but the trickle out of houselessness would save lives. The presumption that all homeless are mentally ill druggie thieves makes people laugh hysterically at these suggestions. This blog proves them wrong, imo. Some certainly are more ‘needy’ than others, fer sure, the system can drive you mad tho, when people lose hope. (Of course, i could be delusional :)) Let’s just git on with it…

    • I have been tempted to ride my bike through the gash station car wash at West Broadway and Burrard. If only I had a waterproof GoPro camera to record it. Wait a minute…my WG-3 is waterproof and it does video. Hmm?

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