Every two years, several hundred volunteers take to the streets of Edmonton to complete a count of the number of homeless individuals in our community. The Homeless Count was established through a recommendation of the Edmonton Task Force on Homelessness in 1999 and provides important information on the scope of homelessness being experienced within Edmonton.
The 2010 Homeless Count started bright and early this morning and will continue well into this evening. Throughout the day, teams of volunteers will be fanning out across the city to talk to people about their housing situation. Volunteers will be asking everyone they encounter a few simple questions:
- Have you been asked about your housing situation today? (If yes, no further questions are asked so as to avoid double counting).
- Do you have a permanent residence to return to tonight?
- Do you have children age 16 or younger who will be staying with you tonight?
The count will be using two main definitions of homelessness for the purpose of the survey:
Absolute Homeless: Individuals and families who have no housing alternatives.
Sheltered Homeless: Individuals and families who are living in emergency accommodations or condemned housing and do not have a permanent place to live.
Sadly, the number of homeless individuals and families has increased in each year that the count has been conducted. In 2008, more than 3,000 people dealing with homelessness were counted. Included in that group were 1,862 deemed absolutely homeless and 1,217 that were considered to be sheltered homeless (e.g. living in a shelter or couch surfing).
A number of statistics jump out from the previous count. First, volunteers were able to identify 133 families, which included 207 children dealing with homelessness. And in what is likely the most disturbing finding, the 2008 Homeless Count found 125 children under the age of 16 living on the street.
While the numbers from the count are certainly concerning, they may in part be responsible for the development of plans by both the City of Edmonton and Government of Alberta to end homelessness within the next ten years. Both plans identify the use of a “Housing First” approach to dealing with homelessness.
The Housing First approach places an emphasis on getting people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless into a permanent residence quickly and then providing a range of supports to ensure that the person will be able to stay in that home. Over 900 people have been housed through Housing First since the summer of 2009.
While the methodology for the Homeless Count is not foolproof, it does provide us with our best estimate as to the scope of the homelessness issue in Edmonton. It also allows those working in the area of homelessness to monitor the changing demographics of the population and adjust their services as needed.
The results of the 2010 Count will be available sometime in November. Nobody knows for sure what the 2010 Homeless Count will find in terms of numbers. Certainly, we all hope to see the numbers decreasing, but the reality is that the homelessness issue is very complex and it may take some time before we start to see the pendulum swing back in the other direction. For those dealing with the issue, that change can’t come soon enough.
Tim Osborne is the Director of Community Building and Investment for United Way of the Alberta Capital Region.