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B.C. Minister of Housing and government house leader Ravi Kahlon speaks during an announcement about the construction of new modular housing projects to house the homeless, in Vancouver, on Dec. 14, 2022.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Dave McAleer was hanging out in the kitchen area of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside Lookout shelt­­­er last week when two young women came in asking if he would be willing to participate in a survey about homelessness.

Sure, he said, and then spent half an hour answering their questions. How old was he? Almost 70. When did he first become homeless? Eleven months ago, when he lost his room at the Lucky Lodge, where he’d lived for several years. Had he lived somewhere else before Vancouver? Yes, Victoria, but he’d moved to Vancouver 12 years ago.

One piece of information they didn’t ask him for was his name. For Vancouver’s one-day homeless count, which takes place every three years, that’s not required. And according to some experts in the field, that gap is a major obstacle toward any meaningful solution to the problem.

Without a name, no one will ever be able to get in touch with Mr. McAleer – who worked most of his life as a cook in work camps in northern B.C. and then restaurants in the south – to help him get on a waiting list for housing. And no one will be able to find out if things have improved for him, or if he eventually ended up sleeping on the street.

If some permanent housing opened up that he could apply for, “there’s no way of telling me about it,” Mr. McAleer said, as he stood at the corner of an alley on Columbia Street near Hastings, leaning on his walker.

That inability to take direct, specific action is one of the reasons the BC Non-Profit Housing Association declined to oversee the count this year, as they have done in the past.

“We started to question whether sending 1,100 volunteers out to ask people deeply personal questions to come up with an anonymous data set was something we wanted to put our resources in,” said association CEO Jill Atkey.

She and her team found that both volunteers and the people being asked a long series of questions about their lack of housing – some of whom have participated in almost every homeless count since they started in B.C. in 2003 – were getting frustrated that the process did nothing to help individuals. Moreover, there was no way to track them to find out if anything changed.

“With anonymous data, that person can never be linked to housing,” Ms. Atkey said.

While this year’s homeless count proceeded anyway, this time under the auspices of the Homeless Services Association of BC, the concerns expressed by Ms. Atkey and her team are percolating throughout Canadian and American networks of service providers, academic researchers and advocates who have been trying for several decades to understand the dynamics of homelessness and suggest new solutions.

Critics note that homeless counts, besides not doing anything to help individual people get housing, also give the public an inaccurate picture of the state of homelessness in a city or region.

For instance, point-in-time counts don’t help the public understand that typically six to 10 times as many people experience homelessness in a year as are counted in a single night. Homelessness is endlessly fluid, with people steadily flowing in and out of shelters, couch-surfing or sleeping on the streets.

The one-night count can be used to lull politicians and the public into thinking that if they just provide the same number of housing spaces as the number counted in one night, the problem should be solved. That results in public frustration and even cynicism: People become aware of the count in their city, and the millions to build capacity in the intervening years, only to see the next count show the same numbers, or even more.

“We don’t know how many people have entered or exited the system and how many were housed in the meantime, whether it was 1,000 or zero. You don’t understand the actual growth rate,” said Mitch DeCock, the data manager for the Central Okanagan Journey Home Society, a group that is trying to develop a different method.

The counts also miss many people. About 60 per cent of young people who are homeless, for example, don’t identify as homeless. Nor do many people camping in their vans on city streets or on their boats or sleeping temporarily at a friend’s house. Others refuse to participate in any counts.

As a result of all of those gaps, some American and Canadian groups or cities trying to tackle homelessness are moving to “by-name” lists or homeless-management information systems.

With this method, which is being pioneered in B.C. by Mr. DeCock’s group in Kelowna, those who run shelters, food programs or any other services for people experiencing homelessness would collect names and biographical information that can be shared in the network.

That kind of homeless-management approach is now being used by 50 cities in Canada, mainly in Ontario, along with Edmonton in Alberta. So far, the method hasn’t found much traction in B.C., where BC Housing has maintained close control of homelessness data collected by service providers, and doesn’t allow sharing among those groups.

For someone like Tim Richter, the current CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, not having that capacity to track people hobbles any co-ordinated effort to reduce homelessness.

“Imagine planning health care by counting who’s in the emergency ward on Tuesday every two years,” said Mr. Richter. “Housing is a dynamic problem. You need dynamic data to solve a dynamic problem.”

That could make a big difference in B.C., he said, where the province has generally led the country in its aggressive policies on building subsidized housing since the federal government bowed out of it in 1994. And yet, officials don’t have detailed information on who is getting it, whether they are staying in their units and what factors are affecting homeless numbers in any given year.

“If they were to pivot to this approach, they would have a much more effective system,” Mr. Richter said. “But you have to be really targeted and precise to get the outcomes you want.”

Proponents of the point-in-time counts say the information is still valuable for some purposes, as long as everyone understands their limitations and their uses. They provide an understanding of the demographics of those currently homeless, they say, and whether there have been significant changes in particular areas.

“They play an important part. They allow us to explore things not captured elsewhere,” said Stephen Gaetz, a York University professor and the president of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.

Service-provider data also miss people, he notes. Between five and 15 per cent of people will not agree to giving their names in “by-name list” systems.

His group has estimated that between 150,000 and 300,000 people in Canada experience homelessness during any given year.

Ms. Atkey points out that the point-in-time counts also perform an important social function – mobilizing the community and raising awareness about the issue.

That was the case for many last week, including recently elected Vancouver city Councillor Lenny Zhou, a health care operations manager. He went out for three hours along Vancouver’s Main Street and around the southeast corner of False Creek, home to several supportive-housing projects.

What he saw that day reinforced his belief that his community needs more education about the issue and that, as a councillor, he needs to maintain the city’s current push for more housing and more mental-health supports.

Mr. Zhou spoke to about eight people in that time, six of whom agreed to participate in the survey.

“The issue wasn’t new to me,” he said. “But hearing their stories is really shocking. It’s heartbreaking.”

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