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Tents and other structures are seen at a homeless encampment at Strathcona Park in Vancouver on April 30, 2021.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

British Columbia’s housing minister says a new method for collecting data on homelessness is the first of its kind in Canada and will help the province improve how it tackles the issue.

David Eby said Wednesday the government used anonymized data from multiple ministry databases to paint a picture of homelessness across B.C. in 2019. It found trends like high per capita rates in northern rural communities and among men.

“The data set is the most accurate count we’ve done to date,” Eby told a news conference Wednesday, while acknowledging it may not capture the “hidden homeless,” such as women staying in unsafe relationships or couch surfing.

A total of 23,000 people experienced homelessness at some point in 2019, the report says. Just over half of them were temporarily homeless rather than on a chronic basis.

Eby says the province previously relied on data from point-in-time counts in 25 communities, but those were known to undercount the homeless. The new data will complement the ongoing point-in-time counts, Eby said.

B.C. housing minister says province working toward long-term solutions for homelessness

The 2020-21 count, which involved volunteers surveying people they encountered on the streets and in shelters over a 24-hour period, identified 8,665 people in the 25 communities.

“British Columbia is the only province that collects this data on a provincial level and we now do it two different ways to try to ensure as best as possible accuracy and try to set benchmarks for measuring whether our programs are working, how they’re working, and where stressors are in the housing system that may be leading to homelessness,” Eby said.

The data is a compilation of BC Housing’s shelter use database, those on income and disability assistance listed as having “no fixed address,” and demographics identified through the Medical Services Plan.

Doug King, executive director of the Together Against Poverty Society in Victoria, said the new data collection is a good thing but shouldn’t replace the other counts.

“The point-in-time count is still very valuable because it involves personal contact with people who are experiencing homelessness and (gives) an opportunity to talk about the reasons why they are homeless, not just that they are homeless,” King said.

An important piece of information from the new report, however, is the large number of people who experience temporary or episodic homelessness, he said.

It confirms what the society sees on the ground, he said, which is that a lot of homelessness can be prevented with supports like emergency rent funding so that people aren’t evicted if they miss a payment.

Other clients become temporarily homeless while on a wait-list for supportive or subsidized housing, he said.

“From our perspective, it’s important that conversations about homelessness also talk about affordability in the housing market,” King said.

The society is an advocate of vacancy control and rent increase limitations, but King said it’s time for broader conversations about better taxation strategies to control the cost of homes.

King also said the society has seen homelessness increase since 2019, so he expects the problem is worse today than the report would suggest.

The government says it will use the data to focus on preventing chronic homelessness rather than reacting to a particular housing crisis.

As an example, Eby said the identification of Fraser-Fort George, Cariboo and Alberni-Clayoquot as having the highest per capita homelessness rates suggests a need to take pro-active steps in rural areas.

While the model for addressing homelessness in city centres typically sees non-profit groups apply to the province for funding to deliver services, smaller communities may not have those organizations. The province is working to expand BC Housing’s reach in those areas, Eby said.

The province is also developing a homelessness strategy emphasizing prevention that will be released this year, he said.

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