That, in the opinion of the House, one nationally standardized “point in time” should be recommended for use in all municipalities in carrying out homeless counts, with (a) nationally recognized definitions of who is homeless; (b) nationally recognized methodology on how the count takes place; and (c) the same agreed-upon criteria and methodology in determining who is considered to be homeless.
Mr. Speaker, the wording of my motion is clear.
The motion's objective is to get the right amount of social services resources support to the right people. For example, some might see the motion as an attempt to cut supports to those most in need, but the intent is exactly the opposite. As parliamentarians, we all have a social conscience and an undeniable responsibility to those most disadvantaged, in dire straits and need. If we parliamentarians are to be proper and worthy stewards of taxpayer dollars, we should make sure we are getting value for money by being fiscally responsible.
We should also ensure that we are spending what is needed to address homelessness, such that we maximize the number of persons in need who we help. We can only do that if we know with some level of precision how extensive the problem really is. Right now there are multiple counts, multiple methodologies, multiple criteria, and not insignificantly, multiple agendas.
A national point in time would remove confusions surrounding counts of Canadian homeless people presently being done by municipalities, by establishing common definitions, common methodology, and a common count date. It would use the best practices introduced in the United States by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. intergovernmental agency on homeless to ensure a national point in time. To maximize accuracy of the homeless count and statistical analysis so that both countries can collaborate to address concerns, it would provide all levels of government with reasonably accurate data to allow more proper allocation of resources to solving the homeless problem.
The point in time should be established as the last week in January, regardless of local climate factors. This date would minimize the chance of recording those who are merely transient and not truly homeless, those who may choose to live or camp outdoors in warmer weather while visiting the city or visiting friends and family. Major cities frequently have transient warm weather populations who are not truly homeless, but rather, just visiting in the warmer months and saving on accommodation. Many would stay in and pay for low-cost youth hostels, if available, or if allowed to. Many more would camp out and pay if there were any camping spaces in or near the downtown. Few are absolutely homeless. They have homes, but not in Edmonton or whichever city they are visiting.
When counts are done other than in the coldest of weather, many of those counted are visiting, people who do have housing alternatives elsewhere, but for personal reasons are not accessing emergency shelters at that point in time. Counting these people serves to confuse efforts to try to help those who are truly homeless with absolutely no means to attain housing alternatives and are in desperate need.
Different Canadian cities do their homeless counts at different times, making a statistically accurate number problematic. At present, only the City of Calgary conducts its count in January, as does the entire United States, regardless of climate, with others in Canada being conducted variously in March, April, May, and October. There is a notable, dramatic difference in count numbers of the absolute homeless, those literally on the street, in all of the Canadian cities counted. Examples are Edmonton, which does its count in early October when it is still relatively mild, and Calgary, a city of similar size. It is hard to imagine that there are 64 truly homeless people living outside in the cold in Calgary while Edmonton has a count of 1,070 homeless living outside. When the count is done does make a difference.
The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, states that there must be a common national point in time for counts in the last seven days of the month of January. Further, it states that defining the scope of homelessness has proven controversial since the issue first gained broad public attention during the 1980s. Public debate has revolved around how widely to view the scope of residential instability and how to target scarce resources to address it.
In general, residential stability can be divided into two broad categories of people: those who are literally homeless and those who are precariously housed.
Literally homeless defines the people who, for various reasons, have found it necessary to live in emergency shelters or transitional housing for some period of time. This category also includes unsheltered homeless people who sleep in places not meant for human habitation—for example, streets, parks, abandoned buildings, subway tunnels—and who may also use shelters on an intermittent basis.
The precariously housed are people on the edge of becoming literally homeless, who may be doubled up with friends or relatives or paying extremely high portions of their resources for rent. This group is often characterized as being at imminent risk of becoming homeless.
HUD's assistance program specifically targets persons living in shelters or in places not meant for human habitation but not people in precarious housing situations or couch surfing.
It is important that the literally homeless situations are distinct and separately enumerated from couch surfers or other precariously housed persons and are not included as part of the Canadian homeless count, as the count is to determine the level of government services necessary to assist the truly homeless needs. Some may be at risk of becoming homeless, but while they are couch surfing with family or friends or precariously housed, they can be considered to have a home or have the means and wherewithal to access shelter and are not necessarily a draw on social services.
Prisons, hospitals, and special care treatment centres should also not be included in homeless number counts in Canada. These people should not be considered homeless until they are discharged or voluntarily leave and then may or may not be homeless, depending upon their financial means or their own housing alternatives at that specific time.
We should not be postulating on who may be homeless in the future but concentrating on those who are actually homeless at the present time.
HUD's definition of “chronic homeless” is:
...an unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition who has been continuously homeless for a year or more, OR...has had...four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.
To be considered chronically homeless, persons must have been “sleeping in a place not meant for human habitation (e.g. living on the streets...) OR...in...emergency shelter” during that time.
HUD's definition of an “episode of homelessness” is “...a separate, distinct, and sustained stay on the streets and/or in a homeless emergency shelter”.
Now, HUD's definition of “chronic homelessness” does not include families. Families rarely enter the shelter system. They are given immediate accommodation by social services and funding towards more permanent housing rental accommodation. In addition, to be identified as chronically homeless, an individual must have a disabling condition, defined as follows:
...a diagnosable substance abuse disorder, serious mental illness, developmental disability, or chronic physical illness or disability, including the co-occurrence of two or more of these conditions. ...a disabling condition limits an individual's ability to work or perform one or more activities of daily living.
As can be seen, the United States intergovernmental agency on homelessness, while instituting a national point in time definition, recognizes that the chronically homeless are a priority but need to be carefully defined so the maximum of homeless persons can be helped with the limited resources available.
The easy part is to have Parliament approve the principle of point in time legislation. The Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness is calling for national point in time counts and national standards. It is correct in that it is essential to align homeless criteria continent-wise.
The more difficult part is to agree together on the definitions, including when, who, how, and why the counts should be conducted throughout North America.
Also difficult would be to convince Canadian municipalities to accept standardized definitions, fact-based definitions that would provide a common national and international perspective, regardless of local and regional Canadian social welfare variant present models.
There are many contrary agendas afloat. Once an agreement on how to proceed is made, the cost to do so would be minimal or neutral as, presently, the various cities are conducting government-funded counts now.
The Federation of Canadian Municipalities, as well as individual municipal and provincial planning and priorities homelessness groups, are united behind a call for federal money. They claim that the cost to Canada for homelessness is now $7 billion annually and rising. They say that great savings can be accomplished if the federal government would commit more money. In Edmonton alone, they say, taxpayers will save $2 billion over 10 years, if they spend only $1 billion.
The numbers for the present costs are questionably high. Also questionable is the description of the needs of the homeless population, both current and projected, by variant count methodologies and definitions.
Today, it would be very difficult for anyone to argue against reform of the process to better and more accurately direct resources to needs. It is time for real numbers, by nationally and internationally approved standards being employed, to allow our government to continue its good work in helping the vulnerable population.
There is a great need in Canada to step up to our collective awareness and intelligence of the true homelessness situation and that population's needs. Canada should perhaps have an institution that is comparable to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, to focus on resources needed and to bring about solutions that maximize effort for those in need.
I would like to read where some of the confusion comes in, which is from a book that I brought out in 2000. In six homelessness reports that I reviewed, there were some 36 different definitions of what a homeless person is.
Members might like to hear some of those definitions, as follows: people living in transitional accommodation, ready to be discharged; people expected to be on the street at the end of this day; people expected to be on the street in the immediate future; people having low income; people having no permanent place to reside; people staying in a temporary form of situation; people who have ended up staying with friends; people living in housing that is extremely expensive; people living in overcrowded or inadequate housing; people living in substandard hotels and rooming houses; people living in housing not within easy reach of employment and costing more than 50% of income; people who lack privacy, security, and tenant document rights; people with problems of mental health or social disorganization; people who are not a member of a stable group; people paying more than 30% of their income for rent; people having no home or permanent place of residence; people who have the quality and the state of being homeless; people suffering from the homeless disease.
As members can see, there is a wide variance of opinions on who is homeless, and this manifests itself in one homelessness count after another. Unfortunately, as I said, the homelessness plan developed in Edmonton was to cost $1 billion over 10 years, and it is doubtful that it will do what it claimed, which is to end homelessness. It would help the homeless people, but $1 billion, in my opinion, would not be sufficient to end the homeless situation in Edmonton. We need to come up with proper definitions and how to approach it. We need a proper way to count them, so we can be together from one end of the country to the other.
We could also be aligned with what the United States is doing. Many of its northern border states are within 100 or 200 miles of our cities in the southern part of Canada. It is imperative that we too experience it and go forward in sync. Hopefully, Ottawa can work with Washington to come up with progressive plans to help this problem and to help homeless people.