Montreal homeless census aims to identify often-hidden needs

Montrealers are being asked to help organizations who work with the city's homeless get a better idea of how many people are on the street in a survey planned for next month.

Douglas Mental Health University Institute will lead survey and is asking for 600 volunteers to help

St. Michael's Mission outreach worker Caitlin Murphy talks speaks with Niki at the McGill metro station. (Shari Okeke/CBC)

On most nights, Niki sleeps in an alley near the McGill Metro station. 

Her sleeping bag keeps her warm, she says, but the extreme cold this week has been tough. 

She's grateful that police officers woke her up one night.

"If they didn't, I would have probably froze to death," said Niki, who asked that her last name not be used. 

Montreal's homelessness survey, set to take place the evening of March 24, aims to count Niki and thousands of homeless Montrealers to identify and target the services they need most.

In Niki's case, as in the cases of many, the need may not be straightforward or obvious. 

"More transportation, ways to get to shelters…for women," she said. 

The Old Brewery Mission does offer a shuttle bus service, taking men and women to shelters.

But outreach workers say some women needing shelter do not feel comfortable riding a bus full of men.

Better coordination is also needed among homeless shelters for women, said Melissa Bellerose, spokeswoman for the Old Brewery Mission Foundation, which includes a women's shelter.

"We hope the survey will bring to light some of these issues like the lack of coordination and also we hope the survey will offer us more reliable statistics," Bellerose said.

"We know that homelessness among women is on the rise… but just how many there are in Montreal we just don't know."

St Michael's Mission outreach worker Caitlin Murphy leaves new socks for two people sleeping inside McGill metro station. (Shari Okeke/CBC)

Volunteers needed

The Douglas Mental Health University Institute Research Centre, along with partners including the YMCAs of Quebec, will conduct the City of Montreal's homelessness survey under the official project name Montreal Homeless Count.

"We are recruiting 600 volunteers who will be assigned a sector in a street or in a shelter with a team and they will go to their sector or their shelter and they will meet all the homeless people they can identify and ask them a few questions," said James McGregor, general manager of the project.

Volunteer recruitment starts Wednesday with the launch of the project's website.

The evening survey will mainly focus on downtown and surrounding boroughs, in metro stations and in shelters.

Surveys will also be conducted the following two days at day centres in order to account for "hidden homelessness."

"In the West Island, what we're told is that there's no street homelessness at night to speak of so that's why it's important to do the day centres, where in fact you might get young people couch surfing in the basement of a friend," McGregor said.

"It's a different kind of homelessness. It's what's called hidden homelessness, so that's what we're hoping to get a better picture of in the days following the night count." 


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