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New methods of counting homeless population promises better outcomes for vulnerable Canadians

The number of homeless individuals in Calgary, like other locations across the county, is systematically under counted.

Research led by Dr. Cheryl Forchuck with the Lawson Health Research Institute detailed a new real-time method of counting homeless Canadians that promises to be more accurate and more effective than other methods used.

The team spent the last several years travelling the country, speaking directly to homeless Canadians, outreach workers, health care providers, and social service agencies to develop an algorithm based on health care information first, and shelter and point-in-time counts second.

“Our current numbers, federally, really rely on people who touch the homeless sector, and they’re really focused on urban communities because in the smaller communities, there is no such sector,” said Dr. Forchuck while at an event in Calgary Tuesday.

“As a result, the federal numbers would suggest across the entire country and in an entire year, we only have 235,000 people experiencing homelessness.”

That number is largely disputed as being accurate by service providers for the homeless sector, as a result of a mish-mash of different methodologies used to count homeless individuals, the accuracy of where individuals are counted, and whether individuals choose to partake in counts.

Dr. Forchuck’s team found that their use of nationally-provided healthcare data offered better indications of the numbers of homeless Canadians, especially in underserved and rural areas.

“One of the advantages of starting with health data and adding things again, rather than taking homeless data and adding things in, is the layers of confidentiality and security that come with the data,” Forchuk said.

The research is building on a study that was done by researchers that looked at Covid-19 vaccine uptake and homelessness in Ontario, from Dec. 14, 2020 to Sept. 30, 2021.

Further research indicated shelter data was inaccurate, due to the way that some shelters counted clients using the services. In one case, a shelter had been letting people in for a maximum of two-hours to warm up during the pandemic, and had been counting each person throughout the day towards a total count of capacity, even though that capacity was never reached.

“What we found is, most shelters said they were full, and the data they then sent to the federal government said they were 100 per cent, but that was really not accurate,” she said.

Healthcare data also informs policy recommendations

Forchuck said that the more accurate real-time information could be used to inform decision-makers at all levels of government to address homelessness issues.

The data also provides better indications of what kinds of resources need to be spent on addressing specific homeless populations, like youth, veterans, and Indigenous Canadians.

She used the example of veterans, who wanted more structured shelter experiences, and as a consequence do not use shelters, as a contrast to youth who find shelter rules very restrictive and also don’t use shelters.

Researchers also found that there have been shifting patterns of homelessness in the country. Developmentally disabled Canadians have been slipping into homelessness as caregivers have no longer been able to provide care as a result of the pandemic. Family shelters are also beginning to see seniors with their adult children, as opposed to the more common form of homelessness where a parent will be with young children.

Indigenous Canadians are also underrepresented, as counts that rely on shelter use miss Indigenous populations that live in rural areas without shelters. Indigenous Canadians represent 28.6 per cent of the people identified by researchers in urban settings, and 83.6 per cent in rural settings.

“We found that the population of homeless was different in the urban centers and in the rural communities that are really missing from the Federal coverage, and you’re much more likely for example, to be Indigenous in those communities,” Forchuk said.

One of the specific recommendations that the researchers are making for Alberta is to end the practice of tying monetary support to having fixed addresses, and therefore housing. Alberta is unique in the nation, said Forchuck, for not providing any level of financial support without having a home.

“This is a real barrier for people experiencing homelessness in our province compared to other provinces,” she said.

She said that the lack of any financial resources forces homeless individuals into criminal patterns of behaviour to fulfill basic needs.

“You really make people very vulnerable, you increase the likelihood of criminal record, and we found much more police presence around people experiencing homelessness in Alberta compared to anywhere else we went, but it’s no doubt because they’re being forced into these very difficult situations.”