Photo By: Tannis Tohey / GetStock
The only way reporters could look inside the city's controversial homeless census last Wednesday, April 17, was to actually participate in it.
Despite the journalistic dilemma this posed, the city deemed that a visible media presence might skew the results of the Street Needs Assessment, a one-day blitz that sends more than 500 volunteers out into the streets and shelters to count and appraise the needs of the homeless population.
But it permitted reporters to volunteer as long as they didn't disrupt the process, and that's how I found myself administering the assessment survey to clients at the Maxwell Meighen Centre, on Sherbourne.
By reputation, the 260-bed men's shelter across from Moss Park is not pleasant; according to a recent city report, conditions are so crowded that homeless people regularly refuse to be sent there.
From the outside at least, it doesn't disappoint. When I arrive at the squat three-storey building at about 6:30 pm, I find the gagging stench of piss at the front gate and, closer to the door, a dark-clad figure who sits sucking something from a glass pipe.
But inside the shelter's cafeteria-like atrium, things are orderly. Despite the thick security glass that shields the workers at the front desk, the prevailing mood is more one of boredom than of menace. A handful of men sit on scattered chairs watching a police procedural on TV at one end of the room, while others read books or play solitaire.
Two dozen people are already lined up at a pair of tables to take the survey, eager to receive the $7.50 Tim Hortons gift card given to all participants.
Each questionnaire takes about five minutes and asks basic questions: How long have you been homeless? Do you identify as queer or aboriginal? What city services have you accessed? What would help get you into housing?
Some men give rapid-fire answers, anxious to get it over with. Others ramble, hinting at sad, fascinating life stories, like the 72-year-old who says he used to own a castle made of glass out west, a popular tourist site until the government bulldozed it to build a highway. One man thanks us for listening. "Some of us really need help," he says.
The city has conducted the SNA only twice before, in 2006 and 2009. While Shelter, Support and Housing Admin staff say it helps the department allocate resources more effectively, academics and homeless people's advocates question its usefulness. At least one leading researcher believes it's "meaningless."
"I don't ever use it and I don't have my students read it," says David Hulchanski, the Dr. Chow Yee Ching Chair in Housing at the University of Toronto.
Hulchanski, author of the landmark Three Cities Within Toronto report on poverty, argues that the assessment's methodology yields inaccurate results. No matter how many volunteers are deployed to count the homeless, he says, they are guaranteed to miss people sleeping in stairwells, ravines or places out of sight, and the census will therefore underestimate the numbers.
Besides, he says, the scope of the problem is already known: the waiting list for Toronto Community Housing is 162,000 people and up to 12 years long, and almost 4,000 sleep in shelters every night. The solution is staring us in the face.
"They need housing; we're not building housing," he says. "Get on with prevention [and] providing better supports for people who are unhoused and get them into housing more quickly. Those are the options."
Patricia Anderson, a shelter services spokesperson, concedes that the SNA may not reach everyone it should. But she points to the 2006 survey, which found that over 90 per cent of respondents wanted permanent housing. The results, she says, confirmed the need for a "housing first" policy, which takes people from the streets to homes without an intermediate stay in a shelter.
The city had just launched its Housing First program a year earlier, and when the next SNA was done in 2009, it found that the number of those sleeping on the street had decreased by 51 per cent - proof, she says, that the policy is working.
The city will publish this year's results in July.
But if the SNA data is indeed useful, the way it's collected isn't exactly flawless. At Maxwell Meighen, there's nothing to prevent men from taking the survey more than once, and several do, hopping from one table to the next to collect additional Tim Hortons cards.
Worse, after 50 surveys, our team runs out of Tims cards. Instead, we start giving out McDonald's vouchers left over from 2009. But unbeknownst to us, the McDonald's cards have only $5 on them, not the $7.50 respondents were promised.
My teammates are mortified when a particularly sweet man comes back from McDonald's and tells us of the mix-up. He'd been so hungry that he ran right out to buy a meal, only to be told there wasn't enough cash on the card. It was embarrassing, he tells us. We were there to help, but we'd humiliated instead.
At around 10 pm we pack up our completed surveys and walk back to the SNA field office at the Wellesley Community Centre. As we pass the halfway houses and community housing buildings of the east side, one member of the team, an un-cynical East Coaster who's spent most of his life working with at-risk youth, vents some depressing thoughts into the dark.
He can't see any of the men we interviewed tonight finding stable housing, he muses. Even if they manage to get off welfare and into a job, it will almost certainly be low-income, and with rents as high as they are in this city, how can they ever afford a home?