Today's featured question is: Why should cities count homeless people?

A decade ago I was the poster child against counting homeless people. When the City of Toronto first proposed its Point in Time (PiT) count I was working at the Church of the Holy Trinity and was on the Steering Committee of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee. I actively fought the implementation of these counts feeling like they wouldn’t be accurate and would further marginalize people experiencing homelessness and likely lead to a reduction in funding.

Fast forward a decade and I’m now a strong advocate of PiT counts (See this fact sheet from the National Alliance to End Homelessness to learn more about these counts). In fact, I’d like to see them made mandatory across the country. In the State of Homelessness in Canada: 2013 report published earlier this year by the Canadian Homelessness Research Network (CHRN) and the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness we recommended that the federal government make these counts mandatory.

The report said, “Recommendation 6) Introduce more comprehensive data collection, performance monitoring, analysis and research. 6.1) The Government of Canada should institute a national Point in Time Count of Homelessness”.

So what changed?


  1. One of my biggest concerns in the beginning was that the Toronto count was not going to be methodologically sound. PiTs are known to undercount the numbers. Homeless activists in Toronto worried that a low result would mean decreased funding without understanding that many people experiencing homelessness are great at ‘hiding’ or blending in to a crowd. They aren’t visible if you don’t know where to look. As PiT counts have increased in Canada the methodology has also improved. Communities are providing better training to their staff/volunteers in how to approach people – including approaching everyone they see, having undercover teams of non-homeless people to see if they get approached in the study area and better ways to ask about someone’s housing status.
  2. I was also concerned that we didn’t have good language about homelessness and that there could be confusion about what and who was considered when doing the counting. Different definitions mean that the results aren’t transferable between communities. While this is still a challenge, the problem was greatly reduced in 2012 when the CHRN published its Canadian Definition of Homelessness that was developed through a very collaborative process.
  3. There weren’t very many cities doing counts when Toronto was first studying the issue. The increase in places conducting counts – in the United States it’s mandatory, although it isn’t here (yet!?) – means that cities now have the ability to compare themselves to other communities as well as to measure their own progress.
  4. The count was first PiTched as just the snapshot of the numbers. It didn’t seem to me that it would include relevant information that could be used to end homelessness. As the frequency and participation level of PiT counts or street needs assessments increases the comprehensive nature of the questions being solicited has also expanded. Participants in Toronto’s 2013 count, for example, were asked about sexual orientation (9% of respondents overall and 21% of youth identified as LGBTQ) and military service (7% of respondents had served in the military).
  5. I’ve come to realize the importance of baseline measures. As the use of Housing First becomes more prevalent (the Homelessness Partnering Secretariat is prioritizing HF for Canadian cities receiving federal homelessness funding), and as cities are mandated to develop community plans to end homelessness, we need to have concrete and factual evidence on which to base goals and to serve as a method of comparison. We need to know where we have started to figure out where to go and to determine whether or not we got there. See Estimating the Need: Projecting from Point-in-Time to Annual Estimates of the Number of Homeless People in a Community and Using this Information to Plan for Permanent Supportive Housing for information on using PiT counts to inform service planning and delivery.
  6. PiT counts can be used to provide snapshots of information that allow community residents to understand the crisis they are facing. Our grad assistant Isaac Coplan recently made an infographic to highlight the statistics from the 2012 count in Red Deer, Alberta. The use of an infographic provides a very visual way to draw attention to the issue and capture key points of information with concrete examples and images.
This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at and we will provide a research-based answer.

Homelessness in Red Deer