January 5, 2016 4:17 pm

National homeless count planned for winter and spring of 2016

A man sleeps on a bench in the Montreal metro system.

Denis Beaumont/The Canadian Press

The federal government is hoping to get a snapshot of Canada’s homeless population through a head count to be conducted in 30 communities across the country this winter and spring.

Ottawa announced its plan for the first co-ordinated “point-in-time count of homelessness” on Tuesday. In recent years, individual cities and towns have done their own counts using different methodologies, making it hard to get a standardized national picture.

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Minister of Families, Children and Social Development Jean-Yves Duclos said he hopes the newly announced initiative will allow communities to “develop the necessary supports where they are most needed.”

The 30 participating cities and towns must each organize their own point-in-time count, to be conducted over a 24-hour period of their choosing between Jan. 1 and April 30. According to a government release, all communities will follow a common methodology to identify and enumerate the local residents who are sleeping in shelters, on the streets and in other public locations.

The coordinated count will also gather information about each homeless person’s background (if they are a veteran or Aboriginal person, for example). The last time the federal government estimated the overall homeless population was 2005, when it was pegged at 150,000 Canadians.

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In addition to giving local governments and organizations a sense of how many people are living without a stable roof over their heads, officials say the information collected will contribute to the federal government’s broader work in combating homelessness and potentially lead to a future count that could include every community across Canada.

“It is certainly important that the federal government support this kind of community-based survey that will provide helpful data on homelessness in Canada,” said Darlene O’Leary, Socio-economic Policy Analyst with Citizens for Public Justice. “It is our hope that this data would be used in the development of a comprehensive plan to end poverty in Canada which would include an affordable housing strategy.”

Challenges ahead?

According to the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness at York University, point-in-time homeless counts can be very useful, but they also tend to miss important data since they focus on a single day, or other short slices of time. This means they don’t catch the bouts of housing instability many vulnerable Canadians experience throughout the year. They also tend to underestimate women and youth, who are not as visible in emergency shelters, transitional housing or on the street.

The biggest challenge, however, may be the logistics of Ottawa’s plan. Details about the specific methodology to be used were not immediately available on Tuesday from Employment and Social Development Canada, but last year, the city of Montreal completed a count of its homeless population that required a veritable army of 800 volunteers to take to the streets with questionnaires in hand. The survey identified 3,016 homeless people living in the city, not including those temporarily living with friends or family or in short-term accommodation.

The cities participating in the federal count are expected to receive additional funding through Ottawa’s Homelessness Partnering Strategy to help them implement the plan. It’s unclear if they will need to rely on volunteers to conduct the surveys.

The participating communities are:


Saint John
Sydney/ Cape Breton


Prince George
Prince Albert


Nipissing/ North Bay
St. Catherines/ Niagara/ Thorold
Sault Ste. Marie
Thunder Bay

*Quebec is reportedly in discussions with Ottawa to organize its own future counts.

© 2016 Shaw Media

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