Thursday, April 06, 2006
Counting the homeless – 67,041 reasons not to.
“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”
This line from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem has been stuck in my head since the debate resurfaced over Toronto’s planned Street Needs Assessment, also known as the ‘Count’ of homeless people that will take place on April 19. Historically, proposals to count homeless people in Toronto have been controversial. Vehement opposition by social service agencies and anti-poverty groups halted a proposed count in 2001. In 2006, amidst what can only be described as catastrophic circumstances, some of the people who are homeless and face massive deprivation of the most basic necessities of life (food, safety, income, housing, personal support of friends and family) will now be counted. The Count is now on the fast track - the next phase of the From the Streets into Homes program, ordered by City Council and allocated a budget of $90,000.
Remember Streets into Homes and the revamped City by-law that made it illegal for a homeless person to sleep at Nathan Phillips Square or other civic centres? Remember what happened to the youth squatting under the Bathurst Street Bridge ? Attacks on homeless people’s use of public space came as recently as last week when City Transportation Service workers arrived at a grate at King and Simcoe and using a high-powered grinder erased months of sidewalk etches by Daniel who lived there.
Today, the sides are polarized more then ever, in part due to a growing disconnect between the bureaucrats and politicians in City Hall on one hand, and homeless people, service providers and activists on the other. City Council’s own Homeless Advisory Committee has testily criticized the City’s Shelter Housing and Support staff over many aspects of their approach to homelessness including the proposed ‘Street Needs Assessment’ methodology, their neglect of timely written reports to the committee and genuine consultation on matters.
The count is also resented and feared because its origins stem from uninformed and biased debate on the floors of City Council and by the rants on the pages of the Toronto Sun rather than for some more useful purpose, which I still can’t imagine.
Counts may have been helpful in other cities ( Vancouver , Victoria , Edmonton , Calgary , and Sudbury ) but they also had their flaws and their critics. An Edmonton count showed more homeless people than Vancouver , which doesn’t seem likely. I don’t know that any count could adequately deal with the invisible homeless, the huge number of people doubled up with friends and family or couch-surfing.
One has to wonder if the counts, which are supported by provincial and federal governments, are able to use the following words ‘funding… federal… provincial…, government… housing - in their recommendations, if they make any.
Facts and figures can be good things, like counting the ways you love someone, or counting how many housing developments are being built in your community that will provide truly affordable housing for people in need.
When it comes to homelessness there is no end to the facts and figures; reports, inquiries, inquest verdicts, and public testimony; films, documentaries, radio specials and newspaper editorials and features; annual reports, city reports and audited statements; pamphlets, web sites, newsletters and blogs – all spew out just about every fact you could want to know about homelessness.
A few years ago Dri, one of the Tent City residents was asked to give a speech to a rally in Quebec City . He didn’t need a lot of statistics to make his point: “We need housing.”
Here are some numbers really worth counting:
Zero was the number of homeless people in North York - according to former Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman during the 1997 campaign for Mayor. He made that statement the very same day Linda Houston, a homeless woman was found dead in a washroom in a North York gas station. Not long before she died City workers removed the park bench she had lived on.
1 is the number of 24-hour cooling centres operated by the City of Toronto , with a population of 2.5 million people. During hot weather alerts this one 24-hour centre accommodates the special needs of people vulnerable to heat injury or death. Those include seniors, people who are disabled, people who are homeless, people on psychiatric medications or living in substandard housing without adequate options for cooling.
2 is the number of toilets in a downtown Toronto drop-in centre which serves an average of 400 people per day. Soap, paper towel and toilet paper are not guaranteed.
3 is the number of homeless people who died in early 1996 which led to the ‘freezing deaths’ inquest. Their names are now on the Homeless Memorial at the Church of the Holy Trinity along with 397 others.
4 is the number of inquests we’ve had into adult homeless deaths in Toronto (Upper/Kompani/Anderson, Edmund Yu, Teigesser, MacIntyre). It’s also the number of times the federal armouries ( Fort York and Moss Park ) were forced to open for emergency shelter.
5 is the number of years since Ontario signed the federal-provincial-territorial housing agreement. 46,332 new units of housing were promised during the first 3 years of this program. 63 is the actual number of units created according to the most recent provincial audited statements.
6 is the number of years since the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee called upon Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health to carry out an investigation of health standards in the shelter system to ensure they met international public health standards. It never happened.
7 is the number of years since City Council passed a motion giving staff the authority to open additional shelters when crowding was documented at 90% capacity. Shelters in the adult, single male and single female category have been over 90% almost every month since 1999.
8 is the number of years since homelessness was declared a National Disaster by hundreds of organizations across the country including the City of Toronto .
9 is the number of months Toronto Public Health, PARC Drop-In and the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee have been waiting to hear from the Coroner as to whether the death of Richard Howell was caused by the heat wave and if he will call an inquest.
10 is the number of years a homeless person would have to wait for a subsidized 1 bedroom apartment, according to the City’s social housing waiting list.
11 is the number of years since front line health care workers warned City officials of the potential risk for a tuberculosis outbreak in the shelter system.
12 is the number of months that bedbugs can survive without a human feed. Many Toronto Shelters have been infested.
13 is the number of years since the federal government cancelled all new spending on affordable, social housing.
14 more than half of the children in Toronto shelters are school-aged between five and fourteen.
15 is the number of men that developed active TB in the 2001 TB outbreak in two Toronto men’s shelters.
16 is the percent of homeless people that have at least 3 serious health conditions such as diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease and ulcers.
17 is the number of years I’ve been a Street Nurse……….
Enough! It’s time to make a quantum leap to the higher numbers.
38 is the percent of shelter users who tested positive for tuberculosis in the 1996 Toronto Public Health TB study.
97 is the number of sleeping spaces (mats or cots) that are added to the already overcrowded shelter system during cold weather alerts.
973 is the total number of spaces added by the faith based Out of the Cold program in gymnasiums and basements in the winter months only.
29,090 is the number of eviction applications by Toronto landlords in 2005.
32,742 is the number of people that stayed in Toronto 's emergency shelters in 2003; 4,620 were children.
60,000 is the number of food plates served weekly by Toronto area drop-ins. The people who use drop-in food programs are the disabled, the unemployed, homeless or marginally housed.
67,041 is the number of households (not people) in Toronto on the social housing waiting list.
Numbers aside, there are moral reasons to be concerned about this homeless count. There are also major problems in the quality and appropriateness of the research methodology.
A single point-in-time count of anything always has gross inaccuracies. Other counts performed in this manner in Canada have all highlighted flaws in the process of counting. As David Hulchanski has written:
“We need to concede that all attempts at counting the houseless are doomed to failure, thanks to insurmountable methodological problems. There are too many who do not want to be counted, too many places where the houseless can find a place to stay for a night, and no method at all for counting those in the ‘concealed houseless’ category.”
The ‘concealed’ homeless, perhaps the single largest group of homeless people, are totally ignored in the City’s proposed count. These people are the singles and families who live in tenuous relationships, doubled up with friends and family. Perhaps it is because they are so hidden that they are not the targets of the City Councillors who demanded this count. After all, they are less likely to panhandle, provoke complaints from business owners or resident’s organizations.
On April 19 1,500 volunteers led by 500 team leaders will be heading out to the street in the evening to count people. As if anticipating how irritating that will be for the people being counted, the team leader job application asks “Do you have experience/training in de-escalating tense situations? Do you have a cell phone that you could use in the event of an emergency on the night of the Street Needs Assessment?” (In my 17 years as a Street Nurse I was never asked by an employer if I had a cell phone to use for those reasons!).
The plan has a major discrepancy in the application of honorariums. Volunteers receive zero dollars. Homeless participants receive a $5 voucher for fast food, even though most researchers in the area of homelessness provide a cash honorarium of at least $20, recognizing the person’s time and knowledge.
Team Leaders receive $100.
We’ve counted enough. Surely my own list suggests more appropriate ways that the City could allocate resources to meet homeless people’s needs while they wait for housing. $90,000 could have bought so much. Food for drop-in centres for example.
As Professor David Hulchanski wrote in ‘A New Canadian Pastime? Counting Homeless People’ in 2000:
“Those who are currently unhoused need to be adequately, affordably and securely rehoused as quickly as possible. Those who are at risk of becoming houseless need measures that will prevent that outcome. We already know more than enough about the nature and magnitude of the problem to embark on rehousing and prevention programs. Addressing ‘homelessness’ is a political problem, not a statistical or definitional problem.”
For more infomormation about the Street Count please visit: www.tdrc.net/street count.htm
You will find the TDRC position paper, Michael Shapcott's deputation to the Community Services Committee and David Hulchanski's policy paper on Counting the Homeless.
"There are lies, damn lies and then there are statistics"
Or maybe it was something else.
I tend to hit my head quite a lot..
Prime Minister, yes. Wilson, no.
I think that Benjamin Disraeli is the person that most credit with speaking the "lies" quote.
Well, we all know what the answer is, don’t we? More money. Is it really?
1. How much is the public, through taxes, willing to pay for government sponsored housing for those in poverty?
2. Even if the government raised taxes to supply this housing, would this cause more problems than it fixes in the forms of increased unemployment, lower productivity and a vast deceleration of the economy?
3. Do any government programs really work as intended?
I was talked into working with Habitat for Humanity by a Rabbi friend of mine. We built several houses for around $75,000 to $80,000 (US) each. Not great houses, but, I guess what one would call “affordable” housing. Now, I can envision the US government spending about 3 times this amount on each house. And, we had about as much luck with the tenants as I assume the US government would have. One house turned into a crack house, totally demolished. One tenant turned to prostitution. But, three homes seemed to have turned out OK. I must find out about these homes…I stopped my involvement with Habitat due to the remarks of ex-president Jimmy Carter.
As for undercounting? I think there is no way to tell how many are homeless. Indeed, this line is telling (about US): “ A 2000 study by the Urban Institute estimated 444,000 to 842,000 homeless people. That’s quite a range (not to mention a lot without a home high or low number).
For comparison, here are figures for US least you up in the great white north think that it is only your problem. Remember, our figures are with an unemployment rate of 4.7%.
I notice that DC has only 6200? Yes, most definitely undercounted…
the public is a funny beast. tax and spend on endless bombing of faraway places? sure! tax and spend on housing? hell naw!
but as i've said before, tax increases are unnecessary; reprioritizing is.
but i agree with you about government programs: better to put the project of building homes into the hands of people who know about building homes.