Volunteers in 30 communities nationwide, including York Region, will be counting the homeless in their areas for a national study. CNS photo

Homeless count aims to find solutions to national problem

  • January 29, 2016

York Region sent volunteers to canvass the streets and shelters to tally the homeless population as part of a federally funded initiative aimed at tackling homelessness nationwide.

About 100 volunteers set out Jan. 20 to spend 24 hours collecting the data. This is the first time for an initiative of this kind in York Region, one of 30 community based counts to take place in Canada before the end of April. Other communities involved include Halifax, Victoria and Regina.

In addition to providing a snapshot of the homeless population and demographic in each community, the information will help provide a national outlook.

As the local partner of the federal government’s Homelessness Partnering Strategy, the United Way of Toronto & York Region oversaw the count and relayed the information to the federal government for analysis. A report is expected in the spring.

“Government and community partners are working together in collecting this information because we know it is a crucial foundation for making a real, sustainable impact to tackle homelessness in our communities,” said Pedro Barata, a United Way spokesperson.

Volunteers targeted emergency shelters, extreme weather shelters and transitional housing locations as well as the street seeking to record the existence of those who are sometimes forgotten. The hope is this information will help government and community agencies allocate aid more effectively by having a complete view of homelessness.

“Such information is critically needed since data on homelessness in Canada is limited and frayed,” said Rehana Sumar, executive director of the Mosaic Interfaith Out of the Cold program where volunteers were stationed during York Region’s homeless count. “We need comprehensive data in order to move towards a more co-ordinated systems approach to poverty reduction. If we don’t know how many people are falling through the cracks, where they are and how they are falling through the cracks, we can’t effectively deal with the problem.”

Rehana said volunteers also sought information about income supports, access to housing and demographic data.

But accurately counting the homeless population is no easy task, said Dr. Stephen Hwang, a physician at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital who has been researching homelessness for 25 years.

“The challenge relates to finding all the people who are homeless,” said Hwang. “It is also difficult to count people who are homeless in a uniform way across different types of community.”

The Government of Canada, which is funding the counts, said elements of the process are in place to combat this.

“When communities conduct counts in the same time of year using a common approach, the results can be used to build a better understanding of homelessness across communities in Canada,” reads the web site for Employment and Social Development Canada, the arm of the federal government co-ordinating the initiative. “Core elements of the method have been standardized, leaving flexibility for communities to build on the approach, and adapt it to their local context.”

The uncertainly regarding the quality of the data being collected turned some major cities away. Calgary and Edmonton declined to participate, citing concerns over the quality of the data. Other cities such as Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa aren’t counting their homeless at the moment but will provide the federal government with information collected during independent research at a different time.

At the United Way Toronto & York Region, Barata acknowledges the limitations but still sees this initiative as a step in the right direction towards ending homelessness. His hope is that the results from the initial 30 participating communities will motivate others to carry on.

“Hopefully what will be happening more and more is that different regions and different communities across the country will increasingly take this up and we will begin to have a real cross-country picture,” he said. “It is a crucial foundation for making a real, sustainable impact to tackle homelessness in our communities.”

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