Edmonton homeless count misleading, inner-city agency says

The result of the latest homeless count in Edmonton is too good to be true, says the executive director of Boyle Street Community Services.

'We're quite baffled about the latest figures and know they're not consistent with what we believe to be true'

Boyle Street's executive director said his staff saw a 43 per cent increase in people camping in the river valley this summer. (CBC)

The results of the latest homeless count in Edmonton are too good to be true, says the executive director of Boyle Street Community Services.

"While I dearly wish they were true, they simply don't reflect what we are seeing on the ground, and we would urge caution in accepting their accuracy," says Julian Daly.

"We appreciate the work that was done on the count, but frankly the figures are inconsistent with pretty much every other piece of evidence — empirical and anecdotal — which shows homelessness on the rise in Edmonton."

The count found 24 per cent fewer homeless people this year compared to 2014, the last time the count was conducted.

Daly said that doesn't reflect what staff are seeing on the front lines.

"For example, the count indicated that there were just 30 people living rough in the river valley and parks. Yet our street outreach teams have worked with over 800 different people living rough this year alone.

"They also saw a 43-per-cent increase in people camping in the river valley this summer."

He said another key indicator of homelessness is the number of people without addresses who use his agency as a place to pick up mail.

That number jumped dramatically, he said, from 1,600 last year to 2,200.

Results baffling

"Overall, we're quite baffled about the latest figures, and know they're not consistent with what we believe to be true," Daly said.

Daly said other agencies have told him they are as busy or busier than ever, and that they think homelessness is on the rise, as would be expected following the economic downturn and the Fort McMurray fire, he said.

Daly blames the low numbers on the homeless count's "flawed methodology."

In 2014, for instance, staff and volunteers spent the whole day tracking down homeless people in the river valley.

This year, the valley count was conducted between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m., much of it in darkness.

Count is a snapshot

"I'm not complacent with the number of 1,752 homeless," said Susan McGee, CEO Homeward Trust Edmonton, the organization that conducted the count. "I'm not remotely satisfied with the results."

McGee said the count was done over a 24-hour period and provides a snapshot.

"Eighteen hundred people is a lot of people," she said.

Of those, 70 per cent were identified as chronically homeless.

"That's reflective of the feedback we're getting from other agencies," McGee said, "where they're saying their numbers aren't up but the complexity of the individuals they're serving is."

Still, there has been some success in finding housing for people who were homeless, she said.

For the first time this year, seven of Alberta's biggest cities (Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge, Red Deer, Medicine Hat, Grande Prairie and Fort McMurray) conducted their counts on the same day as Edmonton.

Many of those communities only did a night count, while Edmonton did a day and night count, said McGee.

A lot of effort went into consulting with organizations such as Boyle Street Community Services to determine the best way to count people living in the river valley, she said.

Daly also questioned whether volunteers recruited to help with the count were capable.

"I'm concerned that a lot of people were missed by the volunteers who were recruited to help with the count but ended up not participating or were too anxious to approach folk who were likely homeless to question them."

Daly said the count must not become the last word on homelessness.

"I just hope that the homeless count figures don't lull us into a false sense of security that the battle is won or nearly won. Because it isn't. Far from it."

Some optimism

Bruce Reith, director for Hope Mission, said numbers there are down.

"We still have 400 to 500 people in the shelters but it's not like it was before, when it was up over 600 to 700."
The numbers are down at the Hope Mission emergency shelters, said Bruce Reith, director. (Gareth Hampshire/CBC)

The homeless count is an accurate snapshot of what's happening in Edmonton right now, he said.

"It's a moving target. There's no way you could do an exact count but it kind of gives you a picture that we're heading in the right direction."

As part of its 10-year plan to end homelessness, the city established the Housing First program, which provides permanent housing with follow-up care.

"For us, there has been a great change in getting people off the street and housed," said Reith. "We're encouraged by this but there's lots more to do with 1,752 (people) on the street."