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Yellowknife shows how not to count homeless people

July 12, 2015


The City of Yellowknife says that it’s first-ever Point-in-Time homeless count, conducted in May, provides useful baseline data necessary to get Housing First funding from the federal government.

The results show that the northern capital city has a homeless population of 150 people — or does it?

A long-time advocate for the city’s homeless, who believes that the true number is closer to 365, says that the count was so flawed that the results are worse than useless and only serve to distort the scope of the homeless problem in Yellowknife.

Counting on federal funding means counting your homeless

This year the Canadian government made it a condition that municipalities must perform a Point-in-Time (PiT) homeless count before they can receive funding over $200,000 from federal homelessness programs. Not surprisingly, a number of Canadian municipalities suddenly committed to performing such counts for the very first time.

One such municipality that announced plans to perform a Point-in-Time homeless count was the City of Yellowknife, the capital and largest community of Canada’s Northwest Territories.

Yellowknife performed its PiT count on May 13 and the preliminary results, released in the last week of May, showed that the count had turned up 150 homeless people out of a general population of 19,234 (as of 2011) — a ratio of one homeless person for every 128 people in the general population.

At 1:128, Yellowknife has a higher homeless ratio than any of the 14 Canadian communities I compared in a recent post — it’s nearly twice as high as Vancouver’s ratio, which is 1:346.

Not all Point-in-Time counts are the same it seems

Vancouverites and others living in many major North American cities will have seen news coverage of Point-in-Time homeless counts — they usually take place in very early spring, and are supposed to be conducted over a full 24 hour period; during which time volunteers go out and try to find all the homeless people that they can — it’s a bit like a big game of hide and seek.

However, back in April, when the City of Yellowknife’s Community Advisory Board on Homelessness (CABH) scheduled its PiT count for May 13, it was announced that volunteers would conduct the count at only two locations: a vacant downtown building lot and a park. The two locations were about 3.3 km apart if you used the roads, or only 1.2 km if you were inclined to swim.

The CABH explained that its 2015 Point-in-Time (PiT) homeless count would be conducted as a “magnet” event and would ‘attract’ participants (i.e. homeless people) to the two locations with signs, free lunch and music and then invite them to complete a face-to-face survey.

Not only would volunteers make no effort to find homeless people anywhere else in the 136.22 km2 that comprises the City of Yellowknife but the entire exercise was only scheduled to last four hours — from 10 30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

It would seem that Yellowknife conducted a Point-in-Time homeless count in name only, adhering to neither the spirit nor the letter of a true PiT count. It wasn’t even a count so much as a kind of survey.

And it was worse than pointless as far as one well-known advocate for Yellowknife’s homeless community is concerned.

Lydia Bardak, executive director of the John Howard Society, was quoted in a post on the Edge website as describing the CABH attempt at a PiT count as “random and haphazard,” and questioning the ethics of releasing numbers that she claimed greatly distorted the scope of the problem.

“What they found was 150 people who were willing to come for lunch and fill out a survey. It doesn’t tell us anything about the population,”

Bardak said that she found it really frightening that the city would use such an unreliable data method to influence policy decisions.

Bardak believes that the number of homeless people living in Yellowknife is at least 365. That’s the number of homeless clients who accessed the John Howard Society’s Dene Ko Day Shelter that Bardak managed until March 2014. That shelter closed its doors in June of 2014 and has since been replaced by the Safe Harbour Day Centre.

Six  years ago, the Yellowknife Homelessness Coalition’s 2009 Yellowknife Homelessness Report Card showed that 936 individuals had stayed in a shelter in 2008, for a total of 67,340 shelter bed uses.

From → Canada, Homeless life

  1. Slowcrow permalink

    Well, with the VERY broad definition that is given to ‘homelessness’ nowadays,and the money to be had, I am extremely surprised that the numbers are so low. Thanks for bringing these studies forward tho, and your analysis. BTW, tv’s not here yet :(, been out watching a murder of crows ‘anting’. Quite the articles on the Google about it….


    • I could’ve gone on at some length more about the Yellowknife count. Yes 150 yields a ratio of homelessness higher than Vancouver’s but it is clearly an under-count. Imagine if the truth was close to the number of individuals who used Yellowknife shelters in 2008: 936 — that’s fully 5 percent of Yellowknife’s population.

      The Harper government is now driving the adoption of point-in-Time counts with plans to have the first U.S.-style coordinated national count in Canada in 2016. Critics, such as the Green’s Elizabeth May, are pointing to the known flaw of PiT counts to underestimate homelessness at the best of times, saying PiT counts do not provide a good foundation for evidence-based policy.


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