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National homeless count will skip Canada’s largest cities

January 11, 2016


Justin Trudeau’s Liberal’s are committing a misstep by carrying forward the former Conservative government’s flawed plan to buy a “nationwide” count of Canada’s homeless population.

Not only will the count begin in January, when it’s hardest to find homeless people and thus reduce the totals, it will go ahead without the participation of some 13 municipalities, including Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton and Metro Vancouver, altogether accounting for about 41 percent of the Canadian population.

Not quite a cross country checkup

The Government of Canada announced in a January 5, 2016, press release that 30 unnamed communities across Canada will conduct federally-funded Point-in-Time (PiT) homeless counts, using a common methodology over 24 hours, on a date of their choosing between January 1 and April 30:

“The PiT Count survey will provide vital information to participating communities about their homeless population, helping to identify their needs and plan their resources accordingly. The information collected will also contribute to the Government of Canada’s ongoing work in combatting homelessness, and will guide the development of a broader strategy to help ensure that all communities have the opportunity to be part of nationally coordinated PiT Count.”

The nationally-coordinated initiative is being carried out and funded under the auspices of the federal Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPS).

The complete list of 30 participating cities is not readily available but will include: Nanaimo, VictoriaPrince George, Nelson and Kelowna in British Columbia. Regina, Saskatchewan. Hamilton, Kingston, London, Thunder Bay and York Region in Ontario. Halifax, Nova Scotia and Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.

Both the City of Vancouver and the region of Metro Vancouver declined to seek federal funding to participate in the national count, citing their own homeless PiT counts in March (yearly and three-yearly, respectively).

Also opting out were “Alberta’s 7 Cities on Housing and Homelessness”: Edmonton, Fort McMurray, Grande Prairie, Red Deer, Calgary, Medicine Hat and Lethbridge. These cities have been holding coordinated homeless PiT counts every four years since 2001.

Other no-shows include Dawson Creek and Fort St. John, both in British Columbia; Sakatoon, Saskatchewan, which completed a PiT count last June; the city of Montreal, Quebec,which held its first homeless PiT count in 2015 and Toronto, Ontario, which carries out occasional Street Needs Assessments (SNA) — the last being in 2013.

Ironically, the national count sponsored by our government in Ottawa has even been spurned by the city of Ottawa itself!

The 13 metropolitan areas not participating include six of the largest cities in the country and all together they represent about 41 percent of the Canadian population. It’s not even clear if there are any participants from the provinces of Manitoba, Quebec or Newfoundland-Labrador.

It’s therefore a bit of a joke to call this any kind of “national” homeless count.

Why the plan has gone south on the Canadian government

The idea of this national count is based (like the rest of Canada’s newish homelessness strategy) on fairly long-established U.S. practices — in this case, the national Point-in-Time counts funded by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that have taken place biannually since January of 2005.

The Canadian government may want to copy the Americans and be seen as leading the fight against homelessness but the government has clearly failed to get the big cites to play along — and no wonder.

In the first decade of the 21st century, federal and provincial governments in Canada were very focused on cutting programs, closing institutions and slashing taxes. A good deal of social safety net was cut out from under especially vulnerable Canadians — the marginalized, the mentally ill and the impoverished.

For a decade, the federal government was largely indifferent to the resulting rise in homelessness and municipalities and regions were left to deal with the problem as best they could.

It’s no surprise then that Canada’s biggest cities, like Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver aren’t taking part in the national count. I doubt that any of them take the federal government’s initiative that seriously.

I mean, sure, they’ll take tax dollars from the feds to spend fighting homelessness as they see fit but I can’t see them taking orders as to how to spend the money. After all, the cities and regions have whatever hard-won experience there is to have. What does the federal government have besides money?

A document obtained by Jordan Press of the Ottawa Citizen, detailing a May, 2015 meeting between the federal government and 49 communities, shows that the national homeless count itself was welcomed but not the leadership or judgement of the federal government.

According to the document, obtained under the Access to Information Act, the Harper government had originally wanted the entire national homeless count to take place in January, for no other possible reason than to coincide with the count conducted in the United States.

The document highlights two main complaints that the cities had: They said that seven months was not enough time to organize an effective count (Toronto and Vancouver both take over a year to plan PiT counts). And January — the coldest month of the year — was, they knew, the worst possible month to go looking for and find homeless people in Canada.

Susan McGee, the CEO of Homeward Trust Edmonton — one of the cities with the most PiT experience, which declined to participate — told CBC News on January 8, that the federally-coordinated count is inherently flawed and will intentionally provide an incomplete picture of homelessness in Canada. The timing — in late winter-early spring — is designed, she explained, to omit as many people as possible.

The big cites have been coping with homelessness for years and they do genuinely want to end it. (I believe that.) They certainly have no interest whatsoever in spending time on a federal P.R. exercise potentially designed to deliberately minimize the true size of the problem.

So, with the cities most experienced with PiT homeless counts sitting out the upcoming national exercise, this leaves the federal government with a rag-tag band of small cities and towns. All 30 of them may be motivated to participate by a strong desire to end homelessness but many of them will have never conducted a Point-in-Time count before. And it remains to be seen just how “common” their methodologies will turn out to be.

In 2015 the Canadian government made it a condition that before communities could receive funding of over $200,000 from federal homelessness programs, the communities had to perform a PiT homeless count. Not surprisingly, a number of Canadian municipalities suddenly committed to performing such counts for the very first time.

Some municipalities qualified for funding by conducted traditional PiT counts that sent volunteers out for 24 hours into the neighbourhoods and back alleys where homeless people were likely to be found. Others, like Yellowknife, got the cash, simply by setting up kiosks in two parking lots and patiently waiting four hours for homeless people to find them.

Yellowknife, by the way, doesn’t seem to be taking part in the 2016 “national” homeless count. To their credit they appear to be focused on using the federal dollars they won to improve the lives of homeless people in their communities (at least I think they are).

At their best, PiT counts aren’t much. they’re like snapshots taken at one “point in time”. They can give you a slightly clearer view of the problem. At their worst however — if they’re poorly planned and/or carried out — they can do far more harm than good, by giving people a wholly false and distorted picture of the problem.

Which is the most important point of all. PiT counts do nothing, in and of themselves, to reduce homelessness.They’re just a tool for policy making. How governments use them, or misuse them, is what really counts.

From → Canada, Homeless life

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