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Housing advocates to ask Ottawa to rethink how country counts, tracks homeless

Lefty, who is homeless, sits on a sidewalk in downtown Thunder Bay, Ontario on Friday, March 4, 2016. The federal government is going to be asked today to trade their 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.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
June 22, 2016 - 9:30 AM

OTTAWA - The federal government is going to be asked today 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 is an elusive and challenging endeavour, but one the federal government has to tackle as part of its plans to reduce poverty and help house all those who need a home.

Experts say the point-in-time count, while helpful, can be like trying to move forward while looking in the rear-view mirror.

The data in a by-name list allows 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 will recommend 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 in a local census of the homeless population for the first time.

The 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.

The proposal being backed by multiple homeless advocates wouldn't seek to ditch the point-in-time counts that the federal government got involved in for the first time this year, but instead would kick off a rethink of how the country uses point-in-time snapshots.

"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, Ont.

Unlike point-in-time counts, however, the list wouldn't capture anyone 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.

The federal government put out the date well in advance in the hope more municipalities — including big cities like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver — would join the federal count instead of doing their own at different times of the year.

Quietly, those involved in the count say the federal government should hold a count in the fall, like cities in Alberta already do, to persuade the big cities to come on board and eliminate data gaps.

There is also concern that when cities use different dates, it could inadvertently cause errors: homeless people counted in one city one week may have migrated to another city in a subsequent week, where they might be counted again.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2016
The Canadian Press

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