Why we count homeless

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial – Why we count homeless
April 15, 2009

Are there more homeless people living on Toronto’s streets? Or fewer? For some, that’s the only result from tonight’s planned homeless count that matters.

It’s worth knowing. But it’s not the most important piece of data that will be collected by hundreds of staff and volunteers combing parks, ravines, streets and homeless shelters during the city’s second “street needs assessment.”

Needs – that’s the key word in all this. The way out of our shameful homeless crisis can be found through the answers to questions in the survey. What would help you get permanent housing, proper identification, access to detox services or mental health supports?

The results from the city’s first needs assessment, conducted in 2006, laid to rest the idea that a majority of homeless people are on the streets by choice. Nine out of 10 homeless people said they wanted permanent housing and help to get it. The survey also discovered that aboriginals – just 1 per cent of the city’s population – made up 26 per cent of the homeless living outdoors. This information was used to target scarce public dollars to where they’d do the most good.

The critics are right to point out that the survey undercounts the extent of our homeless crisis as it doesn’t reach the “hidden homeless” who sleep on friends’ couches or the multiple families who share a one-bedroom apartment. But the survey is still useful.

In looking for volunteers for the survey, the city urged people to “be part of the solution.” That’s what the count is, not an end itself.

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