National surveys by Statistics Canada depend on participants having a fixed address, making it likely that comprehensive numbers of homeless people across Canada are sketchy at best.
Tim Richter, the president and CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, says that lack of reliable information has deadly consequences.
"Homelessness for many people is lethal," he said. "If you look in Toronto, there are 750-plus names on the homeless memorial. They're adding people every month. Nationally, we have no idea [of] the scope of the problem.
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"To solve homelessness, we need to know every person by name and understand their needs," Mr. Ritcher said. "That's the key to solving the problem: knowing the scale. We measure everything else in Canada. As long as homelessness remains invisible – as long as people remain invisible – we're not going to solve it."
He points to Alberta as exemplary in this respect. The province has reduced homelessness by as much as 30 per cent, he said. "They made community plans and made significant, province-wide investments in housing."
But homelessness on a national level has remained relatively unchanged, he said. "We haven't seen a major federal investment yet. We estimate there are about 235,000 people experiencing homelessness in Canada every year."
(For its part, Statistics Canada says there were 20,170 people living in shelters on census night in 2011.)
A national strategy to scale back poverty is in the works. A four-month consultation that wrapped up in October heard from almost 7,000 Canadians, who for the most part agreed that the most vulnerable need affordable homes. The final draft of the National Housing Strategy will be released early next year.
And the City of Toronto will try to capture a more complete picture of death caused by homelessness early next month. Toronto Public Health (TPH) will work in tandem with city agencies to verify death tolls – whether people are using shelters or not.
"Until now, death data for homeless people in Toronto has been limited to those who had been living in city-funded shelters. As a result, the scope of the problem has been unknown," said TPH spokesman Paul Fleiszer in an e-mail. "There have been previous efforts to track this information, however given the broad participation of health and social service agencies that support homeless people (about 200), this initiative is the most comprehensive approach to date. [It] will provide better data to help carry out this mandate and provide solid evidence on which to base efforts to improve the health of this vulnerable population."