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Canada Is Counting the Country’s Homeless for the First Time

Municipalities have run their own counts, with their own processes and definitions, for years, but now the federal government is launching a national effort. It doesn't include Quebec, though.

by Justin Ling
Jan 5 2016, 7:50pm

Flickr Creative Commons

By April 30, Canada will have a pretty good idea of how many homeless people live across the country.

That's thanks to a federally-driven effort to count every Canadian staying in a shelter, sleeping on the street, or living in a public area.

This is the first time that Ottawa has tried to get a handle on the number of homeless Canadians. Until now, municipalities had been running their own counts, with their own methodology, process, and definitions. That has made it difficult to establish a national figure.

The last estimate made by the federal government was that some 150,000 Canadians were homeless. The agency responsible for drafting that estimate was shuttered in 2007.

But the new Trudeau government, led by Jean-Yves Duclos — the minister responsible for families, children, and social development — has started the process to get an accurate snapshot of Canada's homelessness problem.

The government will coordinate an effort by 30 different communities to get a "point-in-time count," which means that each city will pick a different 24-hour period to enumerate their homeless population.

"Through the point-in-time count, communities across Canada will gain a better understanding of homelessness and will develop the necessary supports where they are most needed," Duclos said in a statement.

The survey will also aim to capture data about Canada's homeless population, including basic information like their gender, age, and any shelter arrangements they may have made, but also whether or not they are a veteran, or Aboriginal.

Related: A Growing Movement Is Fighting the Criminalization of Homelessness

Both Aboriginals and veterans are likely overrepresented in Canada's homeless population. A report also released Tuesday estimates that there are 2,250 homeless veterans living across the country.

The count, however, will seemingly take place without Quebec. A government press release about the count says Canada is having "ongoing discussions" with Quebec to participate in the count in the future.

Quebec maintains its own homelessness strategy, separate from the federal government. Montreal recently began its own point-in-time count, although the results identified just a fraction of the estimated number of the city's homeless.

Counts elsewhere in the country have been frustrating for municipal governments. Vancouver's count showed a big jump in homelessness between 2011 and 2014.

But the purpose of the survey isn't just to grab statistics, but also to figure out what housing solutions are needed, and where they'll be the most useful.

Right now, Canada is in the middle of implementing a "housing first" program, which seeks to directly subsidize the rent of homeless Canadians in order to get them into a home as soon as possible. The previous Conservative government kicked in $600 million over five years to get that program off the ground.

Innovative programs like this, which prioritize housing in front of employment or sobriety, have proven remarkably effective.

Watch the VICE News documentary, Hiding the Homeless: 

Medicine Hat, a city in southern Alberta, has effectively eliminated homelessness through a housing first program that gets street-involved residents into a home immediately by covering their first month's rent and security deposit. The city, using provincial and federal money, continues to subsidize the resident's rent for up to a year-and-a-half.

A 2014 report found that, nationally, the new housing tactics proved not only effective in getting homeless Canadians off the street — especially those with mental illness — but were actually saving the government money.

Neophyte Prime MInister Justin Trudeau made housing a hallmark of his campaign, vowing to lift 60,000 children out of poverty. Trudeau underscored the vow by making the announcement in a stadium, meant to symbolize the number of children his policy would help.

Trudeau's platform committed to removing the sales tax on capital investments in affordable housing, and promised to instruct the federal housing and mortgage authorities to do more to finance low-income properties, but it did not promise actual government investment to help cities build new affordable housing units.

Follow Justin Ling on Twitter: @justin_ling

Photo via Flickr Creative Commons user Kat Northern Lights Man