I spoke out this week about Edmonton’s Homeless Count results to urge caution to the community in interpreting the numbers.

The results were initially presented as if the number of homeless identified in the count were an absolute, rather than a snapshot or trend — a figure that provides a glimpse but not the full picture — as is now being said.

Nothing would make me happier than to see a 24 per cent reduction in Edmonton’s homelessness but the figure simply does not reflect the reality of what we see and is evidenced on the front lines every day. Because of Boyle Street Community Services‘ day-to-day work and our involvement in the count, we are aware of areas of significant under-reporting, which calls the methodology of counting and the way we report results into question.

Our Street Outreach team, a team which is out in the river valley and parks every day, has worked with over 800 individuals sleeping outside this year alone, compared to the 30 people identified by the count. We saw a 43 per cent increase in camping in the river valley this year. The numbers of clients who use Boyle Street as a mailing address because they don’t have a fixed address and are likely homeless has gone up from 1,600 last year to 2,200 this year.
We know of many instances in which people are homeless but would not report themselves as such, individuals who knew the count was happening and avoided agencies on that day, or those who simply refused to answer personal questions asked by strangers. And who can blame them for that?

Our point is this: we know that there was significant under-reporting of people who are homeless, meaning the number of 1,752 is not an accurate total. The number is actually higher. How much higher? We don’t know. We don’t have accurate enough data to know.

We hope that the next time we count the homeless population in Edmonton that we can have a more robust, regular and comprehensive methodology and approach, giving us a more accurate picture.

A serious concern is that if these numbers are seen by policy-makers and the community at large as factual, they may be used as rationale for a decrease in resources and energy in the fight against homelessness. The broader community — a community which has been massively supportive of the efforts to end homelessness — might have breathed a sigh of relief and eased their focus and efforts. Those who are challenged by homelessness cannot afford this.

Our organization raising questions about the homeless figure has, in some quarters, been sadly and unfairly characterized as being anecdote-driven as well as not recognizing all the good work done by government and social agencies to end homelessness. Our concerns are driven primarily by hard evidence collected over a long period of time by our workers.

Yes, there was anecdotal evidence as well and we make no apology for that. Anecdotes are people’s observed evidence. Their truth. Their story. And consequently, shouldn’t be so easily dismissed.

Since stories about the most recent homeless count results came out, many Edmontonians have shared their anecdotes with us too. They are telling us that what we said is what they see.

I’ve also been at pains to highlight that thousands of people are currently housed in our city as a result of the amazing work and investment from government and agencies. Indeed, my colleagues at Boyle Street have been leaders in this work and I am proud that they’ve housed so many people over the years. Great work being done to end homelessness and rising homelessness aren’t mutually exclusive realities. The one doesn’t point to the failure of the other.

We all want to see an end to homelessness and the fight to end homelessness needs to continue. I just hope that the homeless count figures don’t lull us into a false sense of security that the battle is won or nearly won because it isn’t. Far from it.