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The Recent Effort to Survey Montreal's Homeless Highlights the City's Lack of Vagrancy Awareness

How can you create programs for the homeless when you are using 17-year-old population numbers?

by Keith Race
Apr 6 2015, 9:00pm

Mario. Photo by Keith Race

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

For 18 years, Mario has been homeless. He sleeps in the day because at night when the temperature drops, it's too cold and dangerous—potentially fatal—to be out on Montreal's streets. Just last week a man lost his hand from frostbite, he told me. All it takes is the accidental exposure of skin to the cold outside their blankets to lose a limb. He used to sleep in Emilie Gamelin Park, but can't any more because the Montreal Police Service have begun a campaign to keep the homeless out of the area and out of sight.

Two weeks ago, volunteers of I Count MTL tried to shine a light on the people who are hidden, ignored, and ushered away by businesses and police into the shadows where they're more easily ignored.

On March 25, Montreal undertook the first count of its homeless population in 17 years. A total of more than 800 volunteers combed through 372 miles of city streets to try and find out how many of it's citizens live as Mario does. Surveys of this type have been done in cities across Canada, including Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, and Toronto, but this was especially important for Montreal considering the last attempt to count the city's most vulnerable took place in 1998.

"It's a Polaroid photo of one evening," said James McGregor, describing the survey and why he and the organizers of I Count MTL chose their methodology. "[We chose this type] first of all, because it's the one that is generally used across Canada and the United States; so with it we can compare ourselves to other cities. And the second reason is that it's more easily comparable over time, so it doesn't necessarily matter if you're undercounting as long as you're undercounting in the same way. So, next year, and in two years time, we can do the same count using the same methodology and we can see if we're making progress."

The main thrust of the survey took place over four hours on the night of March 25. The city was divided into 221 sectors, mostly focusing on the downtown core. In each sector, a small group of volunteers walked the streets, and checked metro stations and homeless shelters to ask a simple question: "Do you have a place to stay tonight?" If the subject answered "No," the volunteers conducted a quick questionnaire then moved on to whomever next they came across.

The 1998 count of Montreal's homeless population estimated the total to be around 30,000. Though the city has grown since then, this new "point-in-time" survey might actually come out with a smaller number. The count only reflects the people who are able to be found in a short timeframe, so it's a given that will produce numbers that aren't completely accurate.

"I think this count is going to be false," said Alexandre Paradis, who participated in the count and works with SOS Itinérant giving food and clothing to the homeless. "We can't get the right numbers because the homeless, three quarters of the time, don't stay in the streets. There were lots of homeless people who weren't counted, so the numbers will be erroneous for sure."

While it might not be the definitive number, the count will at least help provide a bigger picture of the issue at hand, which is otherwise only gleaned from anecdotal experiences or limited data collected by an archipelago of organizations geared towards helping the homeless. So while there are a lot of opinions on the matter, some actual comprehensive data will be able to help in a number of ways.

"We all have an impression that homelessness is increasing in Montreal, but we don't know it. We haven't measured it in any significant way," said McGregor. "When shelters collect data, they don't distinguish between individuals, so they don't know if it's the same person being there for 30 days or a different person there for 30 days. By taking a point in time survey you give yourself a context. And a lot of funders, foundations, and people, more and more, are looking for data to support action. In the old days, it was sufficient to say, 'We're doing a good thing,' to get funding, but these days people are looking for results. So, in some ways, each organization can put their own action in context and point, hopefully, towards positive results."

Positive results proven with reliable statistics are important in today's environment of slimming budgets, but while they help organizations validate their work, they don't, in themselves, solve the problems faced by their subjects.

Montrealers signed up with an alacrity to the project unexpected by the organizers. McGregor expected it to take eight weeks of dedicated work to find 600 volunteers, but instead closed down registration in ten days after registering over 1,000 people. It seems there is no shortage of people interested in helping, despite the challenging prospect of eradicating homelessness.

"I think we're heading backwards instead of forwards, said Paradis. "The homeless in Montreal are well treated by the shelters and organizations, [but] there is some backsliding; like McDonalds, who last week we criticized because they refused to serve homeless people under the excuse that the homeless smell bad, they have no business in a McDonalds, they sometimes sleep at the tables. They are human beings like you and me and should be accepted, and you should accept their business."

An updated number on Montreal's homeless population is long overdue, and if "point-in-time" counts are repeated this year's count will become an invaluable piece of data. But it's often easy to look at a spreadsheet and forget that each number is a life, a struggle, a person deserving of dignity.

"We are all human beings, we are all one species," said Paradis, who would rather see shelters and aid organizations bring their information and experience together to better help and advocate for those in need. "With homelessness, there shouldn't be competition. And we shouldn't calculate statistics, we should calculate people. That's the big problem that organizations have. But they are people, not statistics, and not sources of funding."

Results of the survey will be presented to the municipal government in June.