Homeless census findings 'disheartening' as number of people on Winnipeg streets rises

Results of the second Winnipeg Street Census are being described as discouraging as the number of people without a place to stay appears to have increased since the last tally.

Winnipeg Street Census volunteers encounter 1,500 homeless in city, up from 1,400 in 2015

A house made of cardboard on the lawn of All Saints Anglican Church in West Broadway. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Results of the second Winnipeg Street Census are being described as discouraging as the number of people without a place to stay appears to have increased since the last tally.

Hundreds of volunteers fanned out across the city over a 24-hour period in April in an effort to get a clearer picture of Winnipeg's homeless population.

On April 17 and 18, nearly 300 volunteers encountered close to 1,500 people experiencing homelessness, collecting detailed information on their housing situations, personal characteristics and backgrounds. That represents a rise compared to the previous census in 2015, when volunteers encountered at least 1,400 people experiencing homelessness.

"Disheartening really, when you think about a country as wealthy as Canada one person in homelessness is too many, and here in Winnipeg we have 1,500 people at least," said Josh Brandon, author of the report.

Rather than attempting to give an estimate of the total number of homeless people in Winnipeg, the survey gives researchers and decision-makers an idea of who is experiencing homelessness, why, and what barriers they face trying to get out of it.

"[It] is virtually impossible to get an exact count of the homeless population. Invisibility is a survival strategy for people experiencing homelessness," a preliminary census report said.

Last November, a homeless camp sprung up near businesses around Maryland Street and Portage Avenue in West Broadway. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC News)

Volunteers spoke to people in 69 different locations around the city, including shelters, transitional housing sites, bottle depots and community agencies. They also walked along nearly 220 kilometres of city streets, mostly in the inner city.

The majority of people included in the survey are male (65.1 per cent) and Indigenous (61.2 per cent).

Half of those surveyed had spent time in Child and Family Services care.

"We know a lot of the people coming out of CFS actually don't have a plan for when they turn 18 or 21. They lose support, they lose their services, and there's nowhere really for them to turn to," Brandon said.

Nearly 60 per cent of people surveyed had been homeless for four years or less over the course of their lives, while the average length of time over the past year people spent homeless was seven months.

The authors say people who experience homelessness in their youth are more likely to experience homelessness throughout their lives. The median age when people first became homeless was 20, and the most frequent age was 18.

Two-thirds of people who experienced homelessness for 10 or more years throughout their lives first experienced homelessness when they were 18 or younger.

How do people view the homeless situation in Winnipeg?

CBC Manitoba's Red Chair Chats ask Manitobans to weigh in on hot button topics. With the recent tent city popping up on the lawn of a West Broadway church and the recent street census revealing new numbers on those deemed homeless, we asked what Winnipeggers thought of the homelessness situation. 3:50

"If we don't start helping young people get an early start, whether that's helping with education [and] getting them connected with the services they need, they're more likely to spend long periods of time throughout their lives in homelessness," Brandon said.

Close to 15 per cent of those surveyed were "unsheltered" — meaning they stayed in a public space like a bus shelter, park or in a car. Almost one quarter stayed in an emergency shelter, domestic violence shelter or youth shelter, while another quarter stayed temporarily in another's home.

The rest stayed in some form of transitional housing (17.4 per cent), institution (14 per cent), or a hotel/motel (3.4 per cent).

The survey authors caution that their method "vastly undercounts those who are staying temporarily with family, friends or strangers."

"Moreover, the survey missed many others staying in hotels who do not have a permanent home," they said.

The median age for people in the survey was 39. The survey included 367 youth under 29, 80.2 per cent of whom were Indigenous and 18.6 per cent identified as LGBTQ, which is higher than the 10.7 per cent for the total survey group.

Volunteers surveyed 94 children under 18 years old and 20 seniors over 65 years old.

More than half of those surveyed had not completed high school. A little more than a quarter (26.7 per cent) had a high school degree, 10.1 per cent had some post-secondary education, 9.1 per cent had graduated post-secondary and a small percentage (0.4 per cent) had a graduate degree.

Close to 6 per cent have served in the military or RCMP, and 1.8 per cent are immigrants or refugees who arrived in Canada within the last five years.

The survey methods used in this year's survey were updated from the last time the survey was conducted in 2015, meaning the results are not directly comparable. Surveyors hope that this year's results can be used as a baseline for future street census surveys.

This survey will help build a broader picture of homelessness across the country, according to Brandon.

"We timed our survey with several dozen other cities across Canada as part of the federal homelessness partnering strategy so those results will start to come in and we'll have a better picture," Brandon said.

Results of the second Winnipeg Street Census are being described as discouraging as the number of people without a place to stay appears to have increased since the last tally. 2:05

With files from Meaghan Ketcheson