Following this month's release of results from the Street Needs Assessment, some councillors are calling for a two-thirds reduction in the number of homeless by 2010.
The assessment is now quickly becoming "the homeless count" despite officials' assurances three months ago that it was no such thing.
And although the assessment covered less than half the city, Councillor Jane Pitfield feels the results are good enough to be the yardstick to measure "ending homelessness," a goal she says New York is making strides toward.
Pitfield is also pushing for an annual survey of the homeless (Street staff recommend another in 2008), again just like New York.
But New York City's Patrick Markee has a simple warning, borrowed from the lyrics of Public Enemy: "Don't believe the hype."
Markee, policy analyst with NYC's Coalition for the Homeless, was invited to speak on his city's experience by the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee and other local homelessness activists who have been skeptical of the assessment process from the outset.
To hear Markee tell it, Toronto politicians, whose homeless survey was inspired by New York's, may be looking to the wrong city for answers.
Markee says visits from American, Canadian, European and Japanese officials eager to learn from the New York "success" story have homeless advocates puzzled.
"There's increased talk about our cleaner streets, our safer streets and how that somehow translates into less homelessness," Markee told a group of 50 or so at the monthly vigil for the homeless at Church of the Holy Trinity last Tuesday (July 11).
But according to Markee, the level of homelessness in New York, which activists have tracked for years without the help of a media-friendly street census, is higher now than at any time since the Great Depression.
Markee points to a number of causes, foremost of which is the fallout from the mingling of bylaw enforcement with homeless outreach programs that began under the Giuliani administration.
"We had to change the routes our [outreach] vans were taking," he says, echoing the experience in Toronto after the decisions to ban sleeping in Nathan Phillips Square and to do sweeps of shanties that saw outreach workers accompanied by bylaw enforcement officers. "We had to go hunting for people. It was harder and harder to maintain trust with homeless people."
The difference, though, is that Toronto's sweeps took place under the aegis of Streets To Homes, a pet program of Mayor David Miller's that matched those evicted from their encampments with vacant apartments.
I asked Markee what he thinks of this hybrid model of direct support. He answers carefully.
"There's no question that a housing-first approach works," he says, before adding that without rent supplements he sees little hope for any such program. While 700 people have been housed since January 2005 through Streets To Homes, rent supplements are no longer part of the plan. Citing budgetary constraints, Streets now simply seeks rental apartments that are affordable given a subject's provincial welfare or disability benefits.
It was for the refinement of this program that the Street Needs Assessment was obviously designed: respondents were asked what waiting lists for housing they were on and were given preset choices as to what services would help them get into housing.
But when the results were presented to the community services committee two weeks ago, Calvin Henschell, an outreach worker at the Regent Park Community Health Centre, decried the lack of more open-ended questions.
"Many homeless clients I spoke to [after they participated in the survey] said they did not have a chance to express their needs," he says, adding that additional questions could have addressed how people become homeless and what can prevent it.
Geoff MacDonald, an outreach worker at Central Neighbourhood House, says the Streets To Homes program is too narrow in its focus.
"It is imperative that funding be directed not only toward building housing but also toward improving the overall well-being of the homeless, looking at issues of culture, gender, sexual orientation, ability, addiction and mental health."
But widening the scope - and hence the complexity - of the survey would have caused a decrease in participation, says Streets To Homes's Phil Brown.
Activists would disagree, but a more complex assessment may also have given certain councillors the ammunition to further muddy or politicize its results.
Councillors Pitfield and David Shiner, for example, have spoken eloquently on the need to reduce the number of homeless people - even though they're among the councillors who routinely call for cuts in supportive services such as detox and harm-reduction programs, not to mention the recent move to ban panhandling.
Meanwhile, those respondents who had been homeless the longest said the thing most likely to help them find housing was continued access to harm-reduction programs. And panhandling is a source of income for nearly two-thirds of the homeless surveyed.
Pitfield has found a way to be creative around election time. Rather than using the homeless figure to say it's not a problem, she has said it is and that it must be ended, while staying mum on how she'd go about doing it.
Markee says that in New York the enforcement approach has been growing again. He offers a chilling vision of the potential result: the fastest-growing homeless demographic is entire families.
"I truly hope that's something Toronto can avoid."