Commentary: Homelessness counts miss the mark

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      By A.J. Withers

      Metro Vancouver is planning its annual 24-hour point-in-time (PIT) “homeless count,” which will take place on March 7. These counts started over 20 years ago. This year’s count will be the City of Vancouver’s first since the beginning of the pandemic, after it threw out its modified 2021 count and opted not to do one in 2022.

      PIT counts are “invaluable for planning appropriate programs,” former city manager Sadhu Johnson said in 2020. Johnson said the counts “provide critical information on the number and characteristics of Vancouver's homeless population.”

      While PIT counts are used to inform policy across the country, they fail to provide accurate information about both the number and the characteristics of unhoused people. 

      There is near universal agreement among scholars and those who conduct PIT counts that they are undercounts. Further, the number of dehoused women is minimized and there is evidence that other marginalized groups are also undercounted.

      PIT counts also turn complex people into data points. Take dehoused young, Indigenous, Black and other racialized trans women, who experience high levels of violence and discrimination due to their intersecting marginalized status. The Vancouver PIT count (like most PIT counts in Canada) doesn’t record how many people are part of this group. Instead, unhoused people are recorded separately as youth, as women, as people with trans experience, and as BIPOC people. It is the most marginalized groups that may need and benefit from targeted services, yet they are fragmented and made invisible.

      The city has recognized there is a problem with its demographic data. In August 2021, city staff committed to conducting an intersectional analysis of the previous year’s count “to better understand the experiences of equity-deserving groups.” However, when staff submitted their final report that November, the analysis was absent. How are underestimates that erase intersectional identities meaningfully useful in policy creation?

      In his book The Value of Homelessness: Managing Surplus Life in the United States, Craig Willse describes how homelessness data collection doesn’t just distort the population, but that “the individual must come to reflect the population.” When the city designs its count methodology, the staff believe that they know what homelessness is, which is based, in part, on past surveys. 

      Throughout Vancouver, 500 volunteers descend onto “known locations” to survey dehoused people. Of course, because the city believe they already know who people are and where people are, there are a lot of unhoused people who might not look like what an unhoused person is supposed to look like, or be where unhoused people are supposed to be, who could be missed. 

      If the counts are so flawed, why do we bother with them? Some people argue that counting people is necessary, and PIT counts are the best methodology available. But counting people does nothing to affect people’s actual lives. Instead, these PIT counts are understood as necessary because of the policy called Housing First.

      Ask most people where they would look for positive social policy responses to homelessness and few, if any, will name the United States. Nevertheless, Canada eagerly adopted George W. Bush’s national policy when Stephen Harper federally mandated Housing First in 2014. Housing First is supposed to get people into housing without them having to demonstrate they are deserving of it—often by participating in mental health or drug treatment.

      As a slogan, who can disagree with “Housing First”? But this policy was adopted with the promise that it could end (long-term) homelessness without social change, and would result in cost savings. Those savings would come from shelters, and lower health-care and policing costs. (Not criminalizing homelessness would also save on policing costs.) 

      A primary aim of the PIT counts is identifying how costly the population is so the government can appropriately plan to house the most expensive people. These counts are about the surveillance and management of dehoused people.

      The solution doesn’t lie in more study. It lies in action.

      We already know, for example, that there is a profound need for hundreds of thousands of affordable housing units in Canada. We also know that dehousing has many causes, but the top reason people listed for losing their housing in the last Metro Vancouver homeless count was inadequate income. 

      Massive increases in social assistance are needed, including bringing the shelter allowance in line with the realities of the cost of rent. The desire to generate profit off of housing both dehouses people and keeps people from being able to access affordable housing. Policies to eliminate these practices and to protect tenants are urgently needed.

      Whatever data and analysis this year’s PIT homelessness count and report ends up producing, what is missing may be even more important.

      A. J. Withers is the author of Fight to Win: Inside Poor Peoples Organizing and the Ruth Wynn Woodward Junior Chair in Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University.