Federally-run homeless count facing data gaps as big cities opt out

OTTAWA - Some of Canada's biggest cities have chosen to opt out of a federally run count of homeless people, resulting in what some experts predict will be an incomplete picture of the national poverty problem.

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The decision by places like Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary, among others, to not join in the federal initiative could make it more difficult for the federal Liberals to create a promised anti-poverty strategy.

The government was negotiating an agreement with Quebec to have cities in that province take part in the count, but for now the national effort won't reach into Quebec.

Many cities have never done a 24-hour homeless survey, known as a point-in-time count, which is why the federal government decided last year to try and co-ordinate a national census of those using shelters and living on the street.

Those cities that do a count use different methodologies, making it sometimes difficult to compare results on a national scale.

The previous Conservative government was warned seven months ago about potential shortcomings in data from the point-in-time count after a meeting with 49 municipalities when the details of the initiative were first unveiled. During that meeting, cities initially voiced concerns about the plan to do the count in late January - a time frame the government expanded to run now until the end of April.

A May 2015 briefing note from Conservative MP Candice Bergen, who was minister of state for social development at the time, says the decision by some cities to do their own count would "limit the ability to generate meaningful results" from the national survey.

Getting 30 communities on board with the count will at least give some like York Region, which has never done a point-in-time count before, a baseline to work from and track progress over time, said Pedro Barata, vice-president of communications and public affairs with the United Way of Toronto and York Region.

As long as the questions and methodology aren't wildly different, there may be ways to compare results on a national scale, Barata said.

The point-in-time count is only a snapshot in time of those in shelters and those living on the street and won't capture anyone who has found temporary lodging, for example, or those who spend half their income or more on housing.

Darlene O'Leary, socioeconomic policy analyst with Citizens for Public Justice, said missing some of the country's biggest cities will mean the federal government isn't getting a full picture.

Toronto won't be taking part in the count because it is planning a locally organized count next year. The head of the Alberta agency that oversees counts in seven cities in that province told the CBC they opted out of the federal count over concerns about the quality of data.

Metro Vancouver, which includes 21 communities, will do its next detailed point-in-time count in 2017. The City of Vancouver is doing a smaller count this year in March, which is why it originally decided against joining the federal count, said Celine Malboules, senior planner in the city's housing policy and projects department.

"For us, it's about comparative data. So over the years if we all of a sudden switch the date to January that's going to have an impact," she said.

Malboules said city officials are going to see if they can piggyback on the federally run project and "feed into the national results."


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