The federal Government announced earlier this week that it is launching the first nation-wide “homeless count” – a “point-in-time” survey to count those who are homeless. Over a 24-hour period, 30 communities across Canada will zero-in on how many people are living ‘rough’ on the street, or in homeless and emergency shelters.
Ending homelessness must be an immediate priority for Canada. In 2007, the United Nations declared inadequate housing and homelessness in Canada a “national emergency”. After decades of disregard for the issue, the decision to turn attention to the homeless population is a substantial stepforward in working towards the sustainable, long-term elimination of homelessness in Canada.
But there’s a question to be asked: realistically, will counting heads and shelter beds really help homeless people? After all, experts including the United Nations, have expressed real concern about homelessness in an affluent country like Canada and have advised our governments that the way forward is for Canada take concrete and immediate action to solve homelessness.
But governments like statistics (well, at least some governments do!) and “homeless counts” are attractive because gathering metrics on particular groups of individuals sharing a social condition is relatively easy to do – or so it would seem.
With so-called “homeless-counts,” governments can (in theory) determine the extent of those living on the streets or within community run shelters. The government will rely on this research to determine its policy priorities, design and implement responses, and ultimately determine the successes or failures of its actions. But as straightforward as “homeless counts” seem to be – they can be deceptively inaccurate and risk resulting in ineffective policy responses.
Governments initiating “homeless counts” often fall into the trap of both improperly counting homeless populations, and over-representing certain homeless populations. In these counts, it is those who are more likely to be living ‘rough’ on the streets – largely white men, many with psycho-social disabilities – who dominate the numbers.
While these men are an important segment of the homeless population, the fact is, one can experience homelessness and never live on the street or use a shelter. Women who are homeless, particularly those with children, will do everything they can to stay off the streets – living in cars or “couch surfing” – for fear of violence or the apprehension of their kids by welfare authorities. Many young people would rather sleep at a friend’s apartment than go to a shelter. In Canada’s Northern communities, Indigenous families often squeeze two and sometimes three families into two bedroom houses. All of this is homelessness, but will not count or be counted, and in turn will be largely ignored by policymakers.
The result of using point-in-time counts, like “homeless counts”, as the foundation upon which to base policy, is that those who are the most vulnerable are forgotten.
“Homeless counts” have other troubling limitations. They do not account for the systemic causes of homelessness. They focus on the quantitative side of the equation, while the qualitative dimensions of homelessness – the lived experiences – go unexamined, and unaddressed. “Homeless counts” have the tendency to erase the human element of homelessness.
Perhaps the most defining feature of homelessness is the experience of stigmatization and discrimination. Worldwide homeless people have become a social group that, if not ignored completely, is faced with relentless vilification, discrimination, and criminalisation. They are condemned for trying to stay alive: sleeping in parks, urinating, trying to make some money. They are seen as dirty, lacking morals, and burdens on society. And people who are homeless are often subject to horrific acts of violence based in hate: youth gangs are known to target and beat street homeless, and women who are homeless experience alarming rates of sexual violence, including rape.
Nothing about “homeless counts” reveals this dimension of homelessness.
To develop good policy that addresses a breadth of experiences and causes of homelessness, governments – from local through to federal – must must acknowledge that homelessness is not a personal failure but the failure of governments to effectively implement their international human rights obligations with respect to the right to housing.
This recognition means a concurrent recognition that homeless people are not just heads to be counted, but equal members of the human family with inherent dignity and respect. It means that governments have a legal obligation to ensure every policy decision upholds the right to housing for all homeless people, whether they have been counted or not.
The United Nations has, on several occasions, been very clear with the government: Canada needs a national housing and homelessness strategy that is based in human rights, one that includes measureable goals and timelines, and accountability mechanisms.
As Special Rapporteur on the right to housing, I have been told, often through tears, that more than any material security, what those who are homeless yearn for is to be “seen” – to be recognized and treated by society as deserving human beings. It’s time for governments to figure out how to translate that into policy.
Executive Director, Canada Without Poverty &
United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing