Toronto will launch its first-ever homeless count and street needs assessment on April 19, just days after a Ninth Circuit Appeals Court ruling in California has barred Los Angeles from sweeping homeless people off its streets. Here in TO, city officials are obsessed with the idea of trying to do the impossible: they want to count a group that cannot be counted. In LA, the police have been told to stop arresting homeless people under city bylaws that forbid sleeping on the streets.
So, how do you count a group of people who, as a deliberate survival strategy, try to remain as invisible as possible?
Toronto’s street count of homeless people is controversial because all the experts agree, and even the city officials who are conducting the count acknowledge, that there is no scientifically reliable way to count homeless people. There are as many different methodologies as there are street counts throughout North America.
So, why bother with the count? City officials say that the main purpose is to provide a “street needs assessment” of the physival and mental health needs of homeless people. This assessment will be based on “eyeball assessments” made by volunteers, most of whom don’t have the clinical training to offer a significant diagnosis.
Toronto City Councillors, when they endorsed the plan last October, passed a motion saying that the “central organizing goal” of the street count is to “determine the number of homeless people” in the City of Toronto. The largest group of homeless people – the so-called “hidden homeless” who stay doubled up with family and friends – will not be counted. And city officials admit that any number arising out of the street count will almost certainly undercount the number of homeless people. So, the counting methodology is dubious – which raises the concern of experts and advocates.
Meanwhile, down in Los Angeles, the police there have been ordered by an Appeals Court to stop removing homeless people from the streets under city bylaws. In LA, like in Toronto, it’s not illegal to be homeless. But it is illegal to sleep on the streets. The appeal judges raised the obvious question: Where are the homeless people supposed to go, if they don’t have a home, and the shelters are either full or they aren’t providing proper services?