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How do you count homelessness?

Posted in BC Votes 2009 Reality Check Posted by CBC News on April 21, 2009 03:42 PM |

Mostly TrueThe NDP claim that the number of homeless in B.C. has doubled - even tripled - since 2002 is Generally True.No matter where you live in B.C., you’ve probably noticed someone in your community who doesn’t have a home to call their own- whether that’s the person asking for spare change at the end of the block, or the person whose only shelter is the one given by a different friend each night. Most people would agree the problem seems to be getting worse.

As Carol James said last week on the campaign trail, "When we take a look at the homeless issue across British Columbia, people used to think it was a Downtown East Side Vancouver issue, but in the five years I have traveled the province, I have seen homelessness double, triple in some communities, and now impacting every city and town across this province, it's not simply a Vancouver issue. It's an issue across British Columbia."

But exactly how many of these people are there? No one really knows the answer, but the NDP is campaigning on this: under Gordon Campbell’s government, homelessness has gone up by 364 per cent. That’s what it says in their platform. Is that true? Well, mostly, and depending on how, and who, you count.

How you count can be just as controversial as the number itself.

Since 2002, the Social Planning and Research Council of B.C., or SPARC, has been managing the homeless count in Metro Vancouver. That’s when volunteers fan out across the city during a 24-hour period to count the number of homeless people as a snapshot of the population overall. They’ve counted three times so far, in 2002, 2005 and 2008. Every year the number has grown, but the number of people counting and the communities covered have changed.

There are two questions- can the numbers be trusted if the variables are always changing, and what’s a homeless person anyway?

The 364 per cent number comes from a report called 3Ways to Home

In 2002, there were 300 volunteers and they found 333 homeless.

Those numbers are what they call “street/service homeless.” What that means is they are people who were found on the street or in a place where they get services like a soup kitchen.

In 2008, there were about 700 volunteers, and they counted 1,547 homeless. By this time, they were better at identifying homeless people too. And because they had more volunteers, they were able to go into communities they hadn’t looked at before.

But Nancy Henderson, the Executive Director of SPARC said, “generally we think the census methodology we are using is a very good representation of what's out there. In fact, there's general agreement the count numbers of street and service homelessness are actually low for probably what the reality is in Metro Vancouver.”

There are other ways to count. Michelle Patterson, a professor at SFU, counts estimating the number of people in the general population who are affected by severe adictions and mental illness and then estimate the proportion of that group that is inadequately housed or homeless.

She says the homeless count is a good tool, but should be one tool of many to gauge the problem. “I think they give us the sense the problem is increasing, but by how much or how many, it's hard to say.”

Either way, both women agree the number of people who don’t have a place to call home is going up, so while the number may not be precise the direction is- making the NDP claim mostly true.