Our city’s homeless: Living as one, PiT counts, and public policy decisions

Photo by Cliff Morton.

… A brotherhood of man,
Imagine all the people,
Sharing all the world.
You may say I’m a dreamer,
But I’m not the only one.
I hope some day you will join us,
And the world will live as one.”

– John Lennon

I have had the good fortune to have two articles regarding our local homeless crises published in The Kingstonist. The reading and research for the creation of these articles have broadened my knowledge and understanding of this crisis, while at the same time teaching me how critical, complex, and culturally pervasive it is.

I have also learned from the vital feedback the articles have received differing perspectives and viewpoints abound. Attempting to understand this crisis in our city, devoid, sometimes of the associated rhetoric, is no easy achievement. An unbiased understanding requires us to examine facts, data and publications directly related to Kingston’s homeless crises. An informed and critical examination of a variety of perspectives is, I hope, the antidote to inaccuracies from which we make crucial decisions. To follow is a brief history for what has become the primary tool in Ontario and Canada’s challenge to eliminate homelessness, the Point in Time Count (PiT). Additionally, the last two published Kington PiT counts are examined briefly, and questions are raised about the conclusions drawn from their statistics.

My article on December 10, ‘Homelessness in Kingston just the tip of the global ‘social crises,’ attempted to step back from the intimate perspective of its predecessor article, ‘She’s a statistic until you meet her.’ Researching these two articles proved to me that homelessness is a global crisis and that, most importantly, there are solutions that may be employed with the right political will, here in Kingston. Homelessness has been a recognized crisis in Canada since the 1980s. It appears, however, that it has taken our political leaders four decades since then to address the issue in a nationally coordinated fashion. A researcher at York University, Stephen Gaetz, has published an editorial that sheds light on the current crises. His paper, ‘The Struggle to End Homelessness in Canada: How We Created the Crises, and How We Can End It‘ reminds us that there have [historically been] “impoverished communities in cities and rural areas across the country.”  Also, “that the evolution of homelessness from a problem afflicting a small number of males to crises […] is a relatively recent occurrence.” He, as many other researchers and authors concur that: We do know how we got here.

There have been impactful changes in Canada’s and the world’s economic structures in government policy, leading to cuts in support for low-income people and families and a reduction in available housing. The interplay of these main factors has all contributed to the crises we find ourselves in at this time. There is no reason to think that these same factors are different in Kingston.

For a considerable time now, researchers both globally and in Canada have been aware of an effective solution to homelessness. The most beneficial and cost-effective strategy to solve the homeless crises in our cities has not been the creation of more shelters and other temporary social emergency centres, but the introduction of a ‘Housing First Program’ (HFP)  Our city has a similar ‘Rapid Re-Housing and Housing First Program.’ It is, in fact, one of four priorities detailed in the structure of the 10-Year Municipal Housing and Homelessness Plan for Kingston and County of Frontenac,’ a plan outlined by our municipal government and presented on the City of Kingston website. Its geneses in 2012 saw the publication of the project in 2013. This plan, the site explains, was presented as ‘strategies to end homelessness.’ 

Our city’s plan appears at first reading to reflect a successful ‘Housing First Program.’ What seems to be a similar Program (HFP) strategy is detailed on York University’s Homeless Hub and the Federal Employment and Social Development Department websites. This strategy developed in the 1990s is a ‘recovery-oriented’ approach, designed to place the homeless quickly into independent and permanent housing. This structure dictates that accommodation first is critical, and then supports are provided, including physical and mental health, education, employment, substance abuse counselling, and community connections. Kingston’s interpretation of this model, published in the ‘Homelessness Plan,’ states that Kingston’s Rapid Re-housing and Housing First Program: “assists individuals and families who have the deepest and most chronic needs; to maintain housing through individualized housing case management supports.” As is apparent in this description, the ‘priority component’ of Kingston’s program, does not accurately reflect Canada’s successful process guidelines.  Kingston’s Housing First Program model’s first step appears to screen the homeless based on a pre-determined ‘need,’ although differing versions seem to be published regarding the process here in Kingston. The successful Housing First model indicates that the priority for long-term success is to assign the homeless to a long-term residence. Once housed, the needs of the individual or family members receive sustained professional counselling and support. Note that the process in our city seems to reflect a modified approach, making screening superordinate to all else.  

Four years ago, in 2016, Employment and Social Development Canada mandated that Canadian communities apply a method of ‘Coordinated Access’ (CA) in response to the nationally evident and developing homeless crisis. The CA mandate’s design is to efficiently “access, assess, prioritize, match and refer homeless families or individuals to housing.” The CA process demands coordination of this process, beginning with a Point in Time (PiT) count. This year’s operation – our PiT count, called ‘Everyone Counts 2020’, will take place between March 1 and April 30, 2020.

The structure and application of the PiT count are not new, and a training manual is available for all jurisdictions. Since the count has been applied in other jurisdictions, there is both support for and criticism of the measure. Its most significant benefit, according to the Government of Canada, is that the process standardizes the collection of data regarding the homeless. Additionally, due to the collection process, the PiT permits agencies in a community to coordinate their resources with access to real-time data. The focus on coordination has long been a recommendation of researchers and observers of a successful homeless elimination program. Concerns expressed regarding the PiT, however, focus on several key elements as a statistical collection tool. One critical matter related to its overall inaccuracy is the variability of the knowledge and training of the volunteers between jurisdictions. Another strategic concern is the reluctance of the target population – the homeless – to be identified. Finally, and as with all the constitutional matters related to quantitative research questions, one must take great care to achieve validity in the responses. As a result, including the analysis of the PiT count in Kingston, agencies are quick to caution that the statistics resulting from this method represent the minimum numbers of the homeless; in some cases, experts are concerned that the results may identify no more than half the actual count.

The last Urban Kingston 2018 Point-in-Time Count (PiT) count of Kingston’s homeless population was conducted in April 2018 and supported by a grant from Employment and Social Development Canada’s Homelessness Partnering Strategy. Under the auspices of the Homeless Partnering Strategy of Employment and Social Development Canada, volunteers surveyed people housed in Emergency Shelters and Transitional Housing, those who were Unsheltered, had No Fixed Address, were among the Hidden Homeless, and the “Unknown.”

The results of our area’s last PiT (2018) published in an online 44-page document may be considered valid and reliable to those well-versed in the social phenomenon of homelessness; decidedly less so, I would argue, to the layperson. The document requires close examination and presents, I believe, an aesthetically constructed collage of statistics and assessment in both prose and graphical formats; synthesis, conclusions, and recommendations follow these. The findings presented seem not, however, to be precisely substantiated by the information presented and should immediately motivate the reader to question the publication’s conclusions.

Of concern is the following: The survey found that 81 persons fall into the category of Absolute Homelessness. This descriptor describes two scenarios. One is ‘sleeping rough,’ which is living away from any designated and supervised shelter. In Kingston, ‘sleeping rough’ means to spend the night in parking garages, building entrances, and in much milder weather, on the street or in parks. The second category of the 81 persons found to be in this situation in 2018 is in emergency shelters. In Kingston, these include, for example, In From the Cold, a refuge at 540 Montreal Street for persons 25 years and older. The report’s findings indicate that, compared to 2016, “fewer people were unsheltered and sleeping rough on the night of the 2018 PiT count.” Additionally, “more youth were living in transitional housing, and fewer were living in shelters (than in 2016),” and that “the perspectives of people experiencing hidden homelessness were better captured in 2018.” The summary then declares that “fewer people indicated that they had experienced multiple episodes of homelessness in 2018 than in 2016.”

Again, at first glance, this representation indicates a 25 per cent decrease since 2016 and is undoubtedly significant and positive. However, several factors bring this positive assertion into question. One of the critical differences between the 2016 PiT and the 2018 PiT described in the 2018 document by the authors themselves refers to their contention that the most recent count is a more accurate representation of Kingston’s crises. Two cohorts of the homeless identified in 2018 did not surface at all in 2016; these are the ‘Hidden Homeless’ and the Unknown. However, as the 2018 PiT document itself points out, these two groups do not have permanent housing and “do not often interact with the homelessness system and service providers.” This discrepancy, perhaps more than any other, brings into question the foundational accuracy of the two counts, and therefore unquestionably, the assertions made by the authors in their ‘Key Findings’ section. Unfortunately, the statistical concern related to Kingston’s 2018 PiT survey assessment renders questionable its use as evidence for social improvements. Troubling is that it is more accurately a statistically naïve presentation of the homelessness crises in our city.

Clustered Column. '2016 A', '2018 A', '2018 B' by 'Field1'. Description automatically generated.

Chart A illustrates the percentages indicated by the surveys in 2016 (blue) and 2018 (orange). The third column (grey), assumes, as the author’s do, that the Hidden Homeless and the Unknown Homeless are not accurately placed in a previously surveyed category. The column shifts these percentages to the 2018 PiT Count results so that we may, perhaps, more accurately compare the two previous surveys. We do not know from examining this document into which category the 13 per cent most accurately reside. Are they, in reality, most likely to access emergency shelters, are, in fact, unsheltered, have no fixed address or will, hopefully, be moving to transitional housing? The conclusion that the most recent PiT analysis illustrates the city’s improvement to the plight of our homeless population is, at best, invalid, and at least questionable. Does the 2018 assessment perhaps render a statistically naïve presentation of the homelessness crises in our city? If this is the case, should we be making future decisions regarding the future based on its results? In no way is the intent of this article designed to detract from the many, many volunteers and hard-working municipal and non-profit employees who work diligently, day and night, serving our city’s homeless population. Today’s article’s purpose is to examine some of our municipal government’s data and conclusions for the continued understanding of the solutions we may implement to achieve the goal of Kingston’s 10-year plan, the outcome of which is only three years hence.

Cliff Morton now lives in the Village of Bath. He grew up in the 1950s and ’60s along the Bay of Quinte on the Loyalist Parkway. A former secondary school teacher, his hobbies include reading, writing, birding, fishing, and photography. He enjoys connecting with his community by reading responses to his Kingstonist articles and roaming the fields and forests in the Kingston area with his two golden retrievers.

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