Opinion
Mark Rendell
Mark Rendell

Homeless Count Report: Not Entirely Useless

Last spring's point-in-time count was well-intentioned if flawed in execution. Still, the resulting document has some limited insights.

On EDGE | OPINION

Within days of Yellowknife’s first point-in-time count, it was clear the final numbers wouldn’t paint an accurate picture of the size of the homeless community in Yellowknife. Preliminary results suggested around 150 surveys had been completed during two four-hour sessions on a weekday afternoon in May — a number significantly lower than population estimates given in previous reports, and at odds with the experience of people who work with the street community.

So it should come as no surprise that the final report, released yesterday after eight months, is filled with qualifications about its numbers and recommendations for how things could be done better next time around.  

“On May 13th, 2015 a minimum of 139 individuals were experiencing homelessness during the count,” the report reads. “The City of Yellowknife recognizes that this only represents a fraction of those experiencing homelessness in Yellowknife.”

The “magnet” approach, which in this case relied on people coming to events with the offer of a free lunch (as well a small-scale phone survey conducted by the YWCA), was bound to miss large sections of the homeless population: those camping around the edges of Yellowknife, youth couchsurfers, people who simply didn’t want to fill out surveys. As Lydia Bardak told EDGE the week after the count, “What they found was 150 people who were willing to come for lunch and fill out a survey. It doesn’t tell us anything about the population,” adding that she’d talked to people who had openly scoffed at the idea of completing the City’s survey.

The count, then, did little to actually quantify the scope of the problem.

And with the report mentioning plans to change the methodology to get more accurate numbers if and when another count does occur, we don’t really have baseline data with which to judge the success of any programs and initiatives the Community Advisory Board on Homelessness plans to roll out in the coming years. A cynic might almost see the whole process as a well-intentioned, ill-executed, going-through-the-motions exercise related to funding acquisition; although the count, while paid for by federal money given to the CAB as part of its Homelessness Partnering Strategy, was not a requirement for that funding.

All of this said, the report does contain some points worth noting, namely that the majority of people don’t want to be homeless, that most of the homeless population is Indigenous, that people who end up homeless in Yellowknife come from around the territory and that there are a variety of ways of being homeless.

It’s hard to call these insights; at least they’re not “insights” that anyone inclined to read a report on Yellowknife homelessness does not already have a firm grasp on. But the points are worth reiterating with the help of some data, however cursory.

Few people want to be homeless

“There is often a misconception amongst the general population that individuals experiencing homelessness choose to be homeless and do not want housing. However our results suggested that the opposite was true; 81% of respondents indicated that they wanted secure permanent housing.”

Beyond that, only five percent of respondents actually said they did not want permanent housing; the other 14 percent offered a combination of “no response,”  “don’t know,” and “decline to answer.”

The fact that most people do in fact want housing is particularly relevant given the CAB’s Housing First initiative which is set to begin this summer.  

The majority of the homeless population is Indigenous

“Survey participants were asked if they “Would identify as being Aboriginal, including First Nations, Métis, and/or Inuit?” 91% of the 123 individuals that answered the question identified as Aboriginal.”

The high percentage of Indigenous people in Yellowknife’s homeless community is surely evident to even the casual observer, and the 90 percent figure matches numbers already reported by shelters, says Dayle Hernblad, the City’s homelessness coordinator.

But the sheer level of overrepresentation — only 23 percent of Yellowknife’s total population is Indigenous — should give policymakers incentive to design programs that that are culturally relevant and responsive to the unique history and current needs of the territory’s Indigenous population.

It’s a territory-wide issue

Only 12.5 percent of the respondents were born in Yellowknife, with the rest hailing from a broad range of communities across the territory: 18 in total. Although most respondents had lived in Yellowknife for more than 10 years, “a notable percentage (13%) of respondents arrived in Yellowknife within the previous year.”

Furthermore, “the results show that at least 51% of the 139 individuals included in the count had previously lived elsewhere; though this is likely an underestimate based on the previous question, which revealed that only 12.2% of survey respondents were born in Yellowknife. It is unknown whether individuals came to Yellowknife prior to becoming homeless or after. Nonetheless, this finding suggests a need for a coordinated, territorial response to homelessness.”

There are a variety of ways to be homeless

Although the report admits the number of respondents who indicated that they were couchsurfing or staying in emergency shelters is likely low, and “the results should be interpreted with caution,”  the variety of shelters is interesting:

Couchsurfing: 46

Unsheltered: 27

Emergency shelter: 24

Supported living: 19

Hotel/Motel: 4

No answer: 9

This supports the idea that “homelessness” means a variety of things, and should be thought of as lack of shelter security, and not just the state of physically sleeping on the streets. The “duration of homelessness” is also relevant here: “On average, survey respondents had been most recently homeless for 5.75 years. However a quarter of respondents experienced a much shorter duration of homelessness, indicating that they had been homeless for less than six months.”

None of these findings are news to those who work with the homeless community or design social or housing policy. But they do provide some talking points that may prove useful in pushing the envelope on what’s arguably the most pressing issue in Yellowknife. Still, we can’t but agree with a point made by Bardak back in May: “We know the number of people who seek addiction counseling, who access income support, who use the shelters, the number of kids in child services, how many people are accessing health and social programs, police and corrections statistics… If we had a researcher who could compile this, we’d have a much better picture of who’s out there and what critical needs they have.”