Homelessness is a complex issue but governments and other service providers can’t really begin to address it unless there is accurate data about the size of the problem, says a researcher who was recently in Thompson to discuss her team’s data collection efforts.
Dr. Cheryl Forchuk, a psychiatric nurse by profession, who is the research chair in aging, mental health, rehabilitation and recovery at the Lawson Health Research Institute and the University of Western Ontario, was in Thompson April 20 for focus group sessions about what was learned on a previous trip to Thompson, one of 28 communities across Canada that the team visited to collect date since 2021.
“We are trying to use health data as well as other data to come up with more accurate numbers,” she said following a morning presentation to focus group participants at the Days Inn. “We know that the federal estimates are under-representing people because the federal estimates are based very much on who accesses homeless services and is limited to only 68 communities across the country, that tend to be larger centres. If that is a serious underestimate, it ends up creating a problem where programs don’t have enough funds to operate.”
By not only collecting date but also conducting in-person interviews with more than 400 people nationwide who are homeless or have experienced homelessness in the past or periodically go through periods when they have no permanent home, the Lawson Health Research Institute hopes to help communities not only understand how many homeless people there are, but also how to best provide services to them.
Unlike some communities the research team has visited, Thompson does have some empirical data about how many homeless people there are in the city, their demographic background and what sort of homelessness they are or have experienced. Point-in-time counts of the homeless population in Thompson have taken place numerous times, most recently in 2022, when surveyors found that there were 138 homeless people in Thompson up from 130 four years earlier.
With the Lawson institute’s research focusing on two distinct categories of communities — those with populations between 1,000 and 29,999, which are broadly characterized as rural, and those with populations of 30,000 and above, classified as urban — the four-year project has shown that, in rural communities, Indigenous people make up the vast majority of homeless people, approximately 85 per cent.
In Thompson, 90 per cent of homeless people who participated in the 2022 point-in-time count identified themselves as Indigenous.
“That means we need to be having some very specific Indigenous-led programs,” Forchuk said. “But if you don’t have the data, how do you know that?”
Although there are services like shelters to assist people who are homeless, they may have policies that basically exclude large sectors of their potential clientele, such as those with addictions.
“You’re just somehow supposed to stop using because you’re in this facility,” Forchuk said to the focus group. “That kind of misunderstands what addiction is. If it was that easy, we wouldn’t call it an addiction.”
Though many homeless people may have addictions or mental health diagnoses —30 per cent of those in Thompson said last year that their greatest need was treatment for addictions while 17 per cent said they needed services related to physical disabilities and 17 per cent said they needed mental health services — the reasons they are living on the street are not solely linked to those life circumstances.
The supply of affordable housing plays a huge role in whether somebody ends up homeless, Forchuk says. Across most of Canada, a single person on welfare would only get around $600 per month for all of their living expenses, while someone on disability might get $1,100. A lot of the time, that isn’t even enough to cover rent, let alone rent and food and transportation. And when there isn’t enough housing for every lower-income person, getting it is like being involved in a high-stakes game of musical chairs. Every time the music stops, a percentage of those in the game will end up without a chair.
“If you’ve got more people than chairs, you’re gong to have a homeless problem,” Forchuk says.
In Canada, the federal government downloaded responsibility for housing and homelessness to the provinces in the early 1990s and the construction of affordable housing units, which were already scarcer in Canada than in many European countries, dropped precipitously, from as many as 100,000 being built in a year to fewer than 1,000, across the whole country, in some years. Now the federal government once again has a national housing strategy — the first in four decades — but there’s no making up for lost ground.
At the lower end of the income scale, there are many pressure points that can tip someone from being nsecurely or even insecurely housed to homeless, such as being hospitalized, being incarcerated, having a relationship break down, losing a job or getting evicted.
To reduce homelessness, both housing stock and the safety net for people at transition points must both be addressed, as must poverty in general.
“If you only dealt with transition points and didn’t increase the chairs, you’d still have a homeless problem. Any anti-poverty strategy is going to reduce the people [who can only afford the cheapest housing.]”
Even just being homeless can increase a person’s likelihood of being homeless again, particularly in smaller communities where the most basic amenities may not be available, like public washrooms in parks.
“All the bathrooms are locked and you urinate at a tree,” Forchuk told focus group participants. “What are you supposed to do, give up the habit? But now you’re charged with public urination. You’re actually being charged with the crime of homelessness but now you can’t get out of homelessness if you’ve got a criminal record so it can create a catch-22.”
Even having the necessary documents to access services can be a struggle, as homeless people are constantly at threat of losing belongings or having them stolen.
“If you’re homeless you can’t really be walking around with a big wallet, that’s just like having a sign on your back that says ‘Rob me.’ People are constantly losing their ID.”