Counting homeless when the numbers don't fully add up
CBC News Online | April 18, 2006
It will be Toronto's first official census of its street population. Such surveys have been carried out in Calgary and Vancouver, and have become a rite of spring in most large U.S. centres where they are a condition for cities to receive certain types of federal funding. They are also not without controversy.
Experts argue over what time of year to conduct the count if you want a truly accurate result – too cold and you miss the people who have learned to hide in public buildings; too warm and the numbers become inflated with the crush of transient street kids, many of whom drift onto jobs or families when the warm weather ends.
Then there is the argument over the results themselves. Anti-poverty advocates say such surveys only benefit a right-wing agenda by underestimating the "hidden homeless," those who are crashing with a group in a dive somewhere or on a friend's couch.
And there is the fact that despite its best intentions – Toronto has budgeted $90,000 for the survey – there are still not enough volunteers and team leaders to reach much beyond the downtown and the more obvious hard-luck areas. So the final tally will still represent something of a best guess.
But the bigger issue here is probably not the overall numbers, even if the homeless count does end up giving a reasonably accurate snapshot of who is living on Toronto's streets and in its shelters on Wednesday.
Homelessness, as Canadian thinker Malcolm Gladwell likes to point out, is not an even distribution problem in which the solution is simply a matter of building more shelters or low-income housing. In fact, it is not really even about homes. Rather, it is a social problem that has at its root a hard-core of the addicted, disabled and mentally ill – the chronic homeless – who end up costing the system much, much more than traditional solutions have been able to deal with.
A Canadian staff writer for the New Yorker (and the author of the best-sellers The Tipping Point and Blink), Gladwell makes his case for re-evaluating how we deal with the homeless problem in a February article called "Million Dollar Murray."
It is the story of a likable ex-marine and street drunk in Reno, Nev., who, when he died after 10 years living on the streets, ended up costing the state's police, social services and health system over $1 million.
Murray was a local character. But he was not atypical of your hard-core street drinker, the kind who gets into fights, gets hit by cars and ends up in the emergency ward more often than he should with increasingly complex problems.
It would have been cheaper, Gladwell suggested, if authorities had just given Murray his own apartment and a full-time nurse. Indeed, that is an approach some U.S. cities are actively contemplating.
The 10 per cent solution
Homelessness can seem like an overwhelming problem with some of the numbers that are thrown around: 2.5 million to 3.5 million in the U.S.; between 100,000 and 250,000 in Canada.
But over the last dozen years or so, University of Pennsylvania educator Dennis Culhane has changed the way many people think about it by breaking it into bite-sized pieces.
As a graduate student 15 years ago, Culhane spent a couple of months in a shelter in Philadelphia researching his thesis. When he went back a few months later to renew acquaintances, he found most of the people he met had moved on with their lives.
From this experience and much more research, Culhane posits that about 80 per cent of the homeless population at any given time represents temporary, one-time users of the shelter system. About 10 per cent, mostly young addicts and those barely making ends meet, are repeat users who live in shelters maybe a few weeks a year.
The other 10 per cent are the hard-core street people – the Murrays of the world, whose problems are much more complex and who require not merely shelter, but a continuum of care.
This is the group that is the most visible face of the homeless in any country and that costs the health-care system a disproportionate amount of money. It is also the one that is least-well captured, if at all, by the kind of broad, almost genteel survey that cities like Toronto carry out.
Given that there are roughly 4,800 beds at overnight shelters in Toronto and an estimated 1,000 or so living on the street, according to anti-poverty groups, that is less than 6,000 in total at any one time. (That assumes of course there is not some hideously high hidden number stashed in cheap motels and addiction centres.) Ten per cent of 6,000 is only 600, which is a small enough population that one should really be able to focus some attention on it.
What to do
In recent years, municipal authorities, depending a bit on their political leanings, have tended to deal with the homeless through tough-love or city "beautification" campaigns, in most instances by setting the police on squeegee kids or those sleeping on sidewalks for bylaw infractions.
But this is not an approach that works for the seriously addicted or the mentally unstable. And it doesn't always sit well with the courts, or police. In fact, a U.S. Federal Court just overturned a Los Angeles bylaw that allowed police to arrest homeless people for sitting or sleeping on downtown sidewalks, calling it cruel.
Some communities, however, are experimenting with a kind of drug court model in which addicts or alcoholic street people are being offered alternative sentencing: rehab, job and psychological counselling, and community housing to try to break the million-dollar Murray cycle of just being tossed back on the streets.
Canadians seem sympathetic to homeless people, but we don't often see the problem costing us more than a few loonies a week to panhandlers.
The reality is much different. Toronto and Ontario spend $120 million a year just to keep Toronto's 60 or so shelters operating. The daily tab for a simple bed in an emergency shelter ($60 to $80), spread over 365 days, is much more than the average Canadian pays for shelter and well beyond the cost of a modest apartment or assisted living setup.
» See CBC's the fifth estate The Cost of Homelessness.
All in, the tab for homelessness in this country is probably more than a billion dollars in hidden police, health and social service costs. We, too, have our million-dollar Murrays out there. We just haven't counted them up yet.
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