Poverty Toronto's planned Street Needs Assessment, also known as the count of homeless people, will take place April 19 but why even bother?
The single largest group of homeless people in Toronto, the "hidden homeless" (which includes "couch-surfers" individuals and families with children living in short-term arrangements with friends or family) will not be included in the street count.
Homelessness studies in communities like Peterborough and Sudbury have estimated that for each person in a shelter or on the streets, there are three to four "hidden homeless."
The count will not distinguish between those who are only unhoused for that particular night, those who are periodically unhoused and those who are long-term houseless.
Then there's the fact that people who are homeless, especially those who have been on or close to the streets, likely don't want to be found. How will the so-called "needs assessment" account for them?
We've counted enough.
As professor David Hulchanski wrote in A New Canadian Pastime? Counting Homeless People, "We need to concede that all attempts at counting the homeless are doomed to failure (insurmountable methodological flaws). There are too many who do not want to be counted, too many places where the houseless can find a place to stay for the night, no method at all for counting those in the "concealed houseless' category."
Hulchanksi goes on to write that "while the causes of homelessness may be complex, the solutions are not. Those who are currently unhoused need to be adequately, affordably and securely rehoused as quickly as possible. Then any support services provided for those who need them (job training, transition support, mental health, substance abuse) have a decent chance of being effective.
"We already know more than enough about the nature and magnitude of the problem to embark on rehousing and prevention programs," says Hulchanski. "Addressing "homelessness' is a political problem, not a statistical or definitional problem."
Still, the city has decided to act against the advice of its own homeless advisory committee and send out 1,500 volunteers to count people.
As if anticipating how irritating that will be for the people being counted, the team leader job application asks, "Do you have experience/training in de-escalating tense situations? Do you have a cellphone that you could use in the event of an emergency on the night of the Street Needs Assessment?"
At most, one hour of training will be provided for volunteers, which includes watching a video about what to expect that evening and role-playing the delivery of the surveys.
As the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee points out in its position paper, a real needs assessment of this nature is a sensitive and highly personal enquiry done within a framework of trust. It is not achieved through impersonal, simplistic questions.
A real needs assessment would include an analysis of existing city services and quality/quantity of provision of said services. Some city councillors have been very clear that their goal in all of this is strictly to enumerate the number of homeless people.
While staff reports say that the findings would not be used to "out" homeless people's locations, both people who are homeless and workers in the field are afraid this is exactly what will happen.
Recent reports of increased police harassment against homeless people would certainly cause one to lean in this direction. After all, immediately following the by-law change in February 2005 banning people from sleeping at Nathan Phillips Square, many of the homeless people staying there broke off contact with their regular outreach workers.
Reportedly, the Street Needs Assessment will determine "the needs of homeless people." However, that isn't hard to figure out. In Toronto we know the exact number of people who use emergency shelters on any given night: about 4,500 now, compared to about 1,000 in the early 1980s.
When it comes to homelessness, there is no end to the facts and figures: 67,041 is the number of households in Toronto on the waiting list for subsidized housing. We don't need a study to tell us the answers! Homeless people need housing.
Cathy Crowe is a street nurse, and co-founder of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee.