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Researchers seek better way to count homeless Canadians

The federal government estimates 235,000 people a year experience homelessness across Canada. However, researchers say this number doesn't include people in rural communities or those who avoid front-line services.  (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press - image credit)
The federal government estimates 235,000 people a year experience homelessness across Canada. However, researchers say this number doesn't include people in rural communities or those who avoid front-line services. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The number of Canadians experiencing homelessness has been underestimated for years, researchers say, leading to an underfunded system that can't help those it doesn't take into account.

Over the past year, a team of researchers with the Homelessness Counts project visited 28 communities across the country, including Calgary, examining how existing data could be better utilized to determine how many people are homelessness.

"It's a problem, in many ways, to have inaccurate numbers," said lead investigator Cheryl Forchuk, who is with the Lawson Health Research Institute in London, Ont.

The federal government estimates 235,000 Canadians a year are homeless. But that figure, Forchuk notes, is based on feedback from front-line service agencies.

As she explained Tuesday at an event in Calgary, many of the country's unhoused live in rural communities, which don't have front-line services. Because of this, they are not accounted for in the federal numbers.

Additionally, some people who are homeless choose to stay hidden, Forchuk said. Since these people don't use front-line services, they, too, are not counted.

CBC
CBC

"We need more accurate total numbers, but we also need the specifics to design appropriate programs for people experiencing homelessness and then to see if they work," she said. "If we don't know what a baseline is, we don't know if what we do works." 

The research group has also discovered discrepancies depending on where an unhoused person lives. For example, in rural communities, a large portion of those experiencing homelessness are Indigenous.

Forchuk added that the unhoused in rural communities suffer from different substance abuse and mental health issues than those in urban centres.

The researchers highlighted one concern specific to Alberta: If someone loses their address, they lose all provincial support.

In most provinces, if someone loses their address, they'll still get money for food and essential clothing.

"I think this is a real barrier for people experiencing homelessness in Alberta compared to other provinces," Forchuk said, adding that when people are vulnerable, it increases the likelihood of criminal activity.

Forchuk is in the process of presenting her research group's findings, and she's looking for feedback. She expects to be finished with the federally funded study next year.

Figures in Calgary 

On Wednesday, the Calgary Homeless Foundation released point-in-time count figures for 2022. The one-time count of unhoused persons happened on Sept. 27 across Canada. In Calgary, 2,782 individuals were tallied.

That figure is down 4.4 per cent relative to 2018, the last year a point-in-time count was taken in Calgary. When compared to 2016, the latest figures are down nearly 14 per cent.

Patricia Jones, the president and CEO of the Calgary Homeless Foundation, says the point-in-time count is just a "snapshot in time," a compilation of data from several sources, including an 80-person street team.

While the point-in-time data suggests the number of unhoused people in Calgary is dropping over the years, homelessness remains a significant problem, Jones said, with myriad factors, from addiction to rising inflation.

"We're nowhere near finished to get to a point where homelessness becomes an episode in someone's life and not an enduring feature," Jones said. "So we've got work to do, but at least we've got some traction."

According to the most recent point-in-time data, 71 per cent of unhoused people in Calgary were staying in shelters or using other programs.

The remaining 29 per cent were living on the streets, at encampments, in vehicles or with friends. About 40 per cent of these unsheltered people identified as Indigenous, compared to about 20 per cent in shelters.

Demographically, about 70 per cent of those counted in Calgary's point-in-time data were men.

"I just think, as a community, we really have to have some conversations about how we're supporting men and boys in their younger years and supporting them as they grow into adulthood," Jones said.

"The outcome of this for us is more conversations, meaningful conversations with the right people at the right tables toward action."