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Vancouver is using years-old data to inform its current homelessness policies, according to a researcher from Simon Fraser University.
In 2020, the last time the city performed a full point in time count of how many people had no fixed address, 2,095 residents were homeless. The 2021 and 2022 in-person counts were both cancelled.
A.J. Withers, the Ruth Woodward Junior Chair in gender, sexuality and women’s studies at SFU, told the Straight that homelessness had likely increased since the pandemic started, which isn’t reflected by the city using 2020 numbers.
“We have what I would say is an increase in homelessness of 25 per cent over 2020 numbers,” Withers said in a phone interview.
The lack of more recent data means that current municipal homelessness policies and budgets are being set using outdated numbers that vastly underestimate the number of people needing help.
Vancouver did try and estimate how many people were experiencing homelessness in 2021. The city did an administrative count that year, using several points of data. But staff considered it unreliable, as different data points trended in different directions.
The number of people in shelters declined by 65 people, from 1,548 in 2020 to 1,483 in 2021. But homelessness services were accessed by 25 per cent more people in 2021’s first quarter than the previous three-year average.
Data from 311 calls related to homelessness and input from outreach providers was also mixed: the number of 311 calls was markedly higher than previous years (perhaps due to more people working from home), while providers saw equal or increasing numbers of people.
So, only shelter numbers trended downwards. But access to information data obtained by Withers, and shared with the Straight, indicates that 146 people were turned away from shelters in 2021 due to shelters being over capacity or closed due to COVID-19—a considerably larger number than the drop in people in shelters.
2020’s data does not include the number of people turned away from shelters.
Withers suggested the number of individuals accessing homelessness services is the most reliable proxy for how many people are experiencing homelessness. In the first quarters of 2018 to 2020, outreach served an average of 2,761 clients, with 2,095 people being recorded as homeless in the 2020 count. This suggests around 76 per cent of service users are experiencing homelessness. In 2021, the number of service users was 3,474, which would suggest approximately 2,640 homeless people—26 per cent higher than 2020’s estimate.
The 2021 count also used the number of homeless people in 2020 as a data point, noting that “there has been an average 2 [to] 5 per cent change” each year between 2017 and 2020, and listing the trend as “largely unchanged.”
Withers said city staff “went in believing … [homelessness numbers] change very little, so we think it will change very little. And then they got the results back, and it didn’t change very little.”
Using the 2020 homelessness count and previous fluctuations in the homelessness count as a data point for the number of homeless people in 2021, rather than just as a comparison point, ignores the fact that large swings could happen in the space of a year. From Withers’ perspective, it appears that the city disregarded the 2021 count, in part, because its numbers did not line up with expected increases of up to five per cent.
“I have taught methodology and this is so deeply troubling that you’re entering into it, presuming the results,” they said.
In final remarks on the 2021 count, Sandra Singh, arts, culture and community services manager for the City of Vancouver, noted: “the demand for shelter, outreach and other homelessness services continues to be significant.” Singh does not say whether demand had increased that year.
There was no count in 2022, even using the same limited sources of data as the 2021 report, meaning the city has no way to know whether homelessness has increased in the past year.
“The alternative data sources we collected during the pandemic helped provide context and some insight into the state of homelessness but did not serve as reliable proxies for the number of people experiencing homelessness,” said a statement from the city.
While progress has been made in creating new shelters and temporary housing units over the last few years, persistent levels of homelessness would suggest that the number of people becoming homeless is equal to the number of people being able to move into accommodation. An increase in homelessness numbers would indicate that more people are losing homes than there are new accommodations being built.
Regarding the budget, the statement said, “Housing Vancouver informs our budget and sets out housing targets for people experiencing homelessness, as well as those at risk of homelessness.” The statement did not clarify whether Housing Vancouver was using 2020 homelessness numbers.
Richard Dhingra, a member of Our Homes Can’t Wait, told the Straight that bad conditions within single-room occupancy (SRO) accommodation could be contributing to
“The current system for housing homeless people is really messed up in Vancouver, especially in the DTES,” Dhingra said in an email. “For SRO residents, the general vibe is that they are disappointed and dissatisfied with the poor health and safety conditions, and are preferring to live on the side of the street in a tent.”
Vancouver’s in-person homeless count will return in March 2023. Data generally takes several months to be presented to council, meaning it will not be available until the 2024 budget.