Snapshot of city's homeless finds Indigenous over-represented

Indigenous people, and youth who identify as part of the LGBTQ community, are sharply over-represented among the ranks of Ottawa's homeless, according to a new study.

For the first time, more than 200 social service workers tried to count and survey homeless across the city

The city and 59 social service agencies spent 24 hours last April counting and surveying all the homeless people they could find. (Laura Osman/CBC)

Indigenous people, and youth who identify as part of the LGBTQ community, are sharply over-represented among the ranks of Ottawa's homeless, according to a new study that tries to paint a picture of homelessness in Ottawa over a single day.

For the first time ever, more than 200 social service workers fanned out across the city to count and survey the homeless people living in the city over a 24-hour period, from 1 p.m., April 19 to 1 p.m., April 20.

They spoke with 1,400 individuals and families who identified themselves as homeless.

Among the findings of the 2018 Homelessness Point-in-Time Count, the data shows that although Indigenous people account for just 2.5 per cent of Ottawa's general population, 24 per cent of people experiencing homelessness identify as Indigenous.

Of the 335 Indigenous respondents, 47 per cent had been in foster care at some point in their lives.

For youth who are homeless, more than one-in-five identify as LGBTQ, although they are estimated to account for 10 per cent of the total population.

The city has good data on those people who access shelters and transitional housing services, but this study tried to track down the 'hidden homeless' as well. (Canadian Press)

Surprised how many 'sleeping rough'

The results were not necessarily unanticipated, said Shelley VanBuskirk, the city's director of housing, "but it re-affirmed some of the things we knew to be true."

She said the study presented some interesting pieces of data, including that five per cent of those surveyed identified as being former military or RCMP members.

And she said that the 72 people who surveyors found were "sleeping rough" — that is, sleeping in places that are considered inappropriate for human shelter, like a city park or, in the case of a teenaged couple, a shed — "was a bit surprising to me." 

The Salvation Army operates a street-outreach van throughout the year and volunteers "generally come up with a much smaller number," according to VanBuskirk.

The study didn't capture every homeless person in Ottawa, but will act as a baseline for looking at trends in housing in the future, according to Shelley VanBuskirk, the city's director of housing. (CBC)

Snapshot of homelessness likely too low

The city gathers information about the people who stay in homeless shelters and frequent food banks, but much less is known about the homeless people who don't use those services.

So surveyors from the city, hospitals, emergency shelters, food banks and other organizations headed out to find the city's so-called hidden homeless, which included people who couch surf, or those who are in hospital or incarcerated but who would not have a home to go to once released.

The report is meant to be a snapshot of what homelessness looks like in the city on a specific day, and it does not capture all the homeless in the city.

Indeed, VanBuskirk said that while 17 per cent of respondents were not in shelters or transitional housing, she suspects the actual number of homeless people trying to make do outside of formal housing programs is much higher. 

"We don't have a really good idea of the hidden homeless," she said.

"I think that number is much, much higher than the people we ... surveyed that particular day."

More than two hundred people fanned out across Ottawa one day last spring to count the city's homeless. We hear what the city's first-ever count revealed. 7:07

The province has mandated that cities conduct these one-day surveys every two years.

The reports will help officials identify trends in homelessness over time and to create programs that better respond to the needs of the homeless population.