Feds being asked to rethink how Canada counts, tracks homeless

OTTAWA – The federal government is being asked to trade its so-called “point-in-time” counts of the country’s homeless in favour of real-time lists of people who are homeless or living in poverty.

Counting and tracking the country’s homeless has long been an elusive and challenging endeavour, but one the federal government has to tackle if it wants to reduce poverty and help house those in need of a home.

Experts say the point-in-time count, while helpful, is nonetheless a lot like trying to drive a car forward while looking in the rear-view mirror.

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The data in a so-called “by-name” list allow municipalities to better allocate limited resources based on current conditions, rather than responding to an already-dated point-in-time count.

“It is live data so any time someone is assigned to a case manager, they’re taken off the list and people are added when they come into our system,” said Ali Ryder, housing programs administrator with the city of Kingston, Ont. which has one of the more advanced by-name lists in the country.

“We’re still working out the kinks, but it seems to be a process that’s working pretty well.”

Housing providers recommended Wednesday the federal government start using by-name lists as part of a two-day meeting of a federal advisory board on the point-in-time count that took place earlier this year, with many cities taking part a local census of the homeless population for the first time.

Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said the government is open to any ideas on how to get more dynamic information about the country’s homeless.

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He said the country lacks data on the number of homeless in the country, the level of poverty and the needs each person faces, to say nothing of evidence about what works to eliminate poverty. The government is trying to get that information and should have it within the next two years, he said.

“We have to work very closely with organizations (and) local communities to gather more information on what works best and in which context, because what we hear from provinces and territories and municipalities is that context makes a big difference,” Duclos said after a speech at the University of Ottawa.

“So we hear that and we just want to validate by what progress we can make.”

The by-name list gives housing and homeless service providers a real-time view of almost everyone in a community who is homeless, what services are in demand, and what services are missing.

People consent to have their name on the list when they register at a service provider, where the person’s situation is evaluated so they can be ranked in terms of need.

“A (point-in-time count) provides a picture, but a by-name list is like live-streaming and you can actually take your live stream and snap a picture at any point to get a point in time,” said Marie Morrison, manager of housing stability with the Region of Waterloo.

Unlike point-in-time counts, however, the list may miss some people sleeping on the streets or staying with friends or acquaintances – a practice known as “couch surfing” – unless they access community services.

The federal government publicly announced last week that the next federally co-ordinated counts will take place between March and April 2018.

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