Early results from the first-ever census of Winnipeg's homeless population indicate that many of those surveyed became homeless because of family conflict or the death of a loved one.

The Social Planning Council of Winnipeg released a summary of preliminary results from the Winnipeg Street Census 2015, which aims to determine how many people are without a permanent home.

The council says 39.9 per cent of those surveyed cited family breakdown, conflict or violence as a reason why they first experienced homelessness.

"Family conflict and family breakdown is one of the most common reasons as well as death, so some people talked about the death of a spouse or a child," Christina Maes Nino, a community animator with the Social Planning Council, said Wednesday.

"A lot of people who I know who experienced homelessness have gone through some sort of trauma in their lives. As you get older, that trauma builds up and it becomes harder and harder to manage and to continue to find housing."

Substance abuse or gambling addictions was in second place, at 16.4 per cent, followed by employment-related or financial problems with 14.5 per cent and housing-related conflicts at 12.7 per cent.

More than 300 Street Census volunteers visited emergency shelters, soup kitchens, transitional housing locations, churches, drop-in centres, bottle depots, resource centres and breakfast programs over a 24-hour period on Oct. 25-26.

They also met with people who were staying temporarily with friends and relatives and those who were staying on the streets, under bridges and at other temporary spaces.

Those over the age of 16 whose circumstances fit a set definition of homelessness were invited to answer a 19-question survey about themselves and their experiences.

More than 1,700 people experiencing homelessness

The census found that at least 1,727 people were experiencing homelessness in Winnipeg on the night of Oct. 25.

Of that number, 475 were in "absolute homelessness," meaning they had no place to go or were staying in emergency shelters:

  • 132 of them were walking around all night to stay safe, or they were staying in a public space, such as a bus shelter, park, tent or car.
  • 343 were in emergency shelters, including domestic violence shelters and youth shelters.

The remaining 1,252 individuals were "provisionally accommodated," meaning they were in transitional housing, in institutions, in hotels or motels or staying temporarily with friends, family or strangers.

The median age of those who participated in the surveys was 43 years old, and 69 per cent of respondents were male.

Almost 76 per cent of respondents identified as indigenous. Almost 58 per cent of those who said they were indigenous indicated that they have been in foster care or in group homes.

"A lot of indigenous people, older indigenous men, face a great deal of discrimination when they're looking for housing and they also have fewer services available to them … so receiving income supports or any supports becomes really challenging," Maes Nino said.

Challenges to finding housing

In terms of income, 34.3 per cent of survey respondents said they receive social assistance, while 17.2 per cent said they make money through busking, panhandling, cleaning car windows and selling artwork, and 16.3 per cent of respondents said they receive disability assistance.

Almost 49 per cent of respondents said low income, no income or a lack of employment is a barrier to them finding housing. About 37.6 per cent said low vacancies, poor housing conditions, high rental prices and long waiting lists were factors.

The council noted that the numbers are not an exact count, as the survey was voluntary and "results should not be seen as an estimate of the hidden homeless population."

A more comprehensive report will be released on Dec. 15.

Nineteen community groups collaborated on the census. Maes Nino said the research will help those groups in planning programs and initiatives that address homelessness.

She said the council will also meet with governments to share the Street Census results. As well, she hopes the general public will take notice of the numbers.

"I hope the public says like, 'Wow, 1,700 people are homeless in our city. What can I do? How can I be a part of doing something about it?'"

Read the Winnipeg Street Census preliminary results here:

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