William Charles Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Mon, 19 Sep 2005 06:40:35 -0400

Sep. 19, 2005

Putting a number on city's homeless


Estimates of Canada's homeless population are notoriously unreliable. They
range as high as 250,000 to as low as 14,000. Such widely different figures
create an obvious case for obtaining sound statistics on this most
vulnerable group. To that end, Toronto's community services committee has
taken the right step in approving the city's first head count of people
living on the streets. The plan will go before city council this fall.
Despite well-intentioned and persistent opposition from some anti-poverty
activists, city council should endorse this long-overdue research as quickly
as possible. There should be no reason to fear the facts.
Critics list several concerns, especially the fear that an undercount could
be used by some politicians to justify cutting current resources. They argue
that it is impossible to count the homeless accurately because many "couch
surf," bouncing from friend to friend, instead of living on the street. They
also oppose such a survey because they believe the privacy of street people
would be violated.
The city's plan, similar to existing counts in Vancouver and Edmonton, is to
have volunteers fan out through Toronto's parks, shelters and streets on one
night in spring, interviewing as many homeless people as possible. The goal
is to get a good head count and, just as important, to obtain a detailed
assessment of people's needs.
It is difficult to see how this would be any more an invasion of privacy
than the national census. Indeed, the assessment may miss homeless people
sleeping on friends' couches. But it can be argued that they, at least, do
have friends and a roof over their heads and face different challenges than
the desperate street homeless.
The survey is specifically a "street needs assessment" and, if properly
done, should give planners a better picture of those homeless who are,
literally, down and out. In no way must the findings be used to cut
programs. Rather, they should help direct assistance where it is most
Clearly, more must be done to help the homeless - not less.
But effective social policy must be built on a foundation of facts. And a
lack of reliable statistics now leaves policy-makers with no choice but to
rely on untested assumptions, and even crude guesswork, when crafting
programs designed to protect and assist the homeless.
This population is understandably difficult to track. The city's shelter
system serves 4,000 to 5,000 people each night, but many more are uncounted
and living in makeshift shacks in local ravines, or sleeping on park
benches, in doorways, in abandoned buildings or on sidewalk grates.
The planned survey will not reach every one of the homeless people in
Canada's largest city. That is too much to expect. But it should give
planners a more accurate picture of this population, its origins and its
needs. And that makes the head count worth doing.