The problem with homeless counts and M-455

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Photo: flickr/One Off Man Mental

It's not unreasonable to think that a good starting point for solving a social problem like homelessness, is to get a handle on exactly how many people are affected. Especially when you hear numbers being bandied about like 150,000 to 300,000 people in Canada are homeless. That is, after all, a pretty significant difference. Which is it: 150 or 300? Who wouldn't be tempted to get out there and start counting? That's exactly what Conservative MP Peter Goldring suggested we do -- on a national scale.

Last month Goldring introduced motion M-455, which seeks to develop a nationally shared definition of homelessness and a common methodology to count homelessness at a standard "point in time."

In fact, Goldring doesn't stand alone. In our drive to nail down this problem, to be precise and concrete, to determine how many people we're talking about, homeless counts have become commonplace across the country.

The only problem is: they don't work. There isn't a single homeless count out there that accurately and reliably measures homelessness. And not only is it an impossible phenomenon to measure, measuring it can result in bad policy.

You see most people, including perhaps Goldring, think homeless people are mostly guys living rough on the streets, women victims of domestic violence living in "battered women shelters" or a bunch of men lined up waiting to get into the local mission. If that were the case, then a point-in-time survey counting who is homeless might be possible.

I suppose governments could lasso homeless services into documenting the number of beds occupied on a specific date and try to do a decent estimate of those living out in the cold -- though counting street homelessness is notoriously difficult.

Of course, the above description of who is homeless is far narrower in reality. If you work with those who are poor and homeless you'll know that homelessness is very often concealed, hidden and invisible. It's estimated that concealed homelessness is more than double the number of people on the streets. Women with kids, for example, will do pretty much anything they can to stay off the streets. This means they often have to double up with friends and family.

Similarly, homeless young people often couch surf at a friends' house or apartment. And out of absolute desperation, many homeless people find themselves living intermittently in their cars or in abandoned buildings.

All of these people are obviously homeless by any definition, but how exactly does Goldring expect us to count them? Should we go door knocking? Peer into car windows? Sweep abandoned buildings? Or should we just ignore this segment of the homeless population?

Suddenly the precision he's searching for gives way to a single undermining question: Maybe homeless counts are not an accurate measure of how many people in any given community might be homeless?

And once you start pondering, and dig a little deeper, you'll unearth more problems with homeless counts. For example, homeless counts rely on self-identification. That is, an individual needs to self identify as 'homeless' in order to be part of the count.

Not surprisingly, many people are reluctant to disclose that they are homeless out of shame or embarrassment, while others might be reluctant for fear of legal penalties -- for example, families may fear that if they reveal they are homeless they risk losing their children to child welfare authorities.

But do the deficiencies inherent in homeless counts make M-455 unsupportable? Yes.
And here's why.

If any aspect of this motion were to see the light of day or influence anyone to take action on homelessness, M-455 has the potential to contribute to bad policy. And, given the paucity of attention paid by Parliamentarians to the socio-economic concerns of the most disadvantaged, some effort should be made to get these issues right when they are brought onto the floor of the House of Commons.

During the recent debate on the motion opposition Parliamentarians aptly noted that the narrow focus on the visibly homeless will completely underestimate the problem and skew an understanding of who is homeless and, more importantly, why. Chronic homelessness will likely be overestimated and episodic homelessness from systemic causes (job loss, inadequate minimum wages, etc.) will remain ignored. This limited portrayal of the causes of homelessness could result in bad housing policy.

How, for example, would an inaccurate and narrow count lead to an accurate estimate of transition housing, housing supports and supplements, rent-geared-to-income programs or shelter spaces needed?

How could any level of government confidently claim success in lowering the number of homeless people if they are unsure of the number of people couch surfing or precariously housed?

How can a government successfully challenge the systemic causes of homelessness if they turn a blind eye to them when measuring the extent of the problem?

Success would have to be a term used loosely.

Of course, it's hard not to view M-455 without suspicion. The Conservatives have steadfastly eroded Canada's ability to engage in evidence-based policy-making -- so why would they support the collection of this data, now?

Moreover, collecting data to provide proof of a problem already well recognized by all levels of government seems misguided. It has been established through parliamentary committees, independent research and broad consultation across the country that the larger issue of homelessness and poverty must be addressed through legislated plans and strategies, not merely a head count.

As Goldring knows, the United Nations has repeatedly expressed concern about the high rate of homelessness in this country in light of Canada's wealth and economic security, and that they have made many concrete recommendations that Canada must take up to comply with its international human rights obligations. None of these recommendations focus on counting the homeless.

The UN and other research has been clear: Parliamentarians should focus on introducing legislation or policy adopting a coordinated national housing strategy (with the provinces and territories) based in human rights that includes adequate resources, measureable goals and timelines, monitoring and review mechanisms and a forum in which people can claim their rights.

Goldring had an opportunity to help address homelessness in Canada when Bill C-400 (a bill to establish a national housing strategy) was before Parliament. Unlike most of his colleagues he voted in favour of it (along with members of all opposition parties).

Goldring should stay his course, put aside this motion and stand up and be counted himself. He should tell Parliament that whether there are 150,000 or 300,000 homeless people in Canada, it's far too many, especially for one of the richest countries in the world, and he should re-introduce Bill C-400 and work to have his party support it this time round.

Leilani Farha is the Executive Director of Canada Without Poverty. Michele Biss is a Student-at-Law.

Photo: flickr/One Off Man Mental

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