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Homeless count defended amid criticism
Numbers could be 'inaccurate' says advocate, mayor says effort is about assessing root causes

Meagan Leonard
Northern News Services
Saturday, May 30, 2015

Accuracy of data collected during a point-in-time homeless count last month is being questioned by at least one person working in the field.

NNSL photo/graphic

The City of Yellowknife conducted a count of homeless people in the city last month, which has garnered some criticism from at least one advocate. - NNSL file photo illustration

John Howard Society of the NWT executive director Lydia Bardak expressed doubt in the point-in-time count's approach and says the 150 surveys completed during the outdoor barbecue do not reflect the reality of Yellowknife's homeless population.

"One hundred and fifty people went for lunch and were willing to answer a survey," she said. "That's what the data reflects."

Between November 2009 and March 2014, 365 people accessed the Dene Ko Day Shelter alone. In 2009 a report card on homelessness showed more than 900 individuals utilized shelters in Yellowknife in 2008.

"All of the shelters in town are providing to their funders the number of people they have for their own planning, their own staffing," she said. "Those numbers already exist."

She said although the goal of the city's count was to identify those falling into grey areas - couch surfers and transients - these people would be less likely to identify as homeless on a survey but would still be counted if they used a shelter.

"Their image of homelessness is someone who is down and out on the street (and) they feel because they can get a place to sleep at night, they don't feel themselves being homeless," she explained. "Would they step up and volunteer to answer a survey, I don't know."

Mayor Mark Heyck attended the event and helped serve hot dogs and hamburgers to visitors. He said the count was successful and the city intends to conduct one annually.

"I think the number of surveys that were completed (is) a good indication of the willingness of people to participate," he said. "The initial data will be very important in giving us a better picture of the situation on our streets."

He added the city has access to numbers provided by shelters but they really wanted to explore the root cause of people's homelessness.

"I think it's a bit of a misnomer to call it a count exactly," he said. "The purpose of the data that was collected . is to better understand what may be the underlying cause of the person being homeless, whether there are health issues involved, what the family situation might be and there's even an effort to reach out to people."

However, because the survey results were meant to inform the city's pending housing program for homeless people, Bardak says having inaccurate numbers is problematic.

Housing First provides semi-permanent living arrangements, so people are better able to deal with mental health and addictions issues.

"If they're left with some kind of impression that there's only 150 people in need of help in Yellowknife, that terrifies me," she said. "It's inherently flawed data and if municipalities are being pushed into this by the federal government then shame on them and shame on municipalities for not standing up and saying, this doesn't even make sense."

The count took place on May 13 between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. at two different locations in the city. Participants were asked to fill out a survey asking where they were originally from, how long they have lived in Yellowknife and when they first became homeless.

Heyck says statistics aside, the day was a great opportunity for many different groups in the community to come together.

"All of the people that came who were homeless seemed happy to be there and happy to participate," he said. "It was nice to see all segments of the community socializing and enjoying a meal together in the heart of downtown."

Full results of the count will be released in a report later this year.

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