Homeless Counts for What?: By Scott Neufeld
Every year since 2010 the City of Vancouver has counted its homeless residents. Around four hundred volunteers are recruited, trained, and sent out to lie in wait at Vancouver shelters or hit the streets to follow predetermined routes in search of their homeless quarry. Volunteers are provided with ‘homeless maps’ marked with red stars that indicate places like parking garages or drop-in centres where homeless folks are known to sleep or hang out. Homeless counters flag these individuals down (or in some cases wake them up) to offer them a cigarette before asking them a bunch of personal questions, including “How do you make your money?” and “Why did you not sleep in a shelter last night?”
The 2015 homeless count took place in the 24-hour period of March 24. 1,746 homeless persons were counted: 488 on the street and 1,258 in shelters. Behind these numbers lies a process that needs to be questioned.
Who counts as homeless?
Most homeless counts use a definition like the one from the 2015 count: someone is considered homeless if “they did not have a place of their own where they could expect to stay for more than 30 days and if they did not pay rent”. Strangely, by this definition, a forty-year-old man living in a friend’s basement and not paying rent is considered homeless, while an Indigenous woman sleeping in a tent in Oppenheimer park but storing her stuff in the roach-infested SRO room she pays rent for is NOT considered homeless. This definition has nothing to do with “home” and instead has everything to do with participation in the rental economy.
Why does Vancouver count the homeless?
The 2015 homeless count report itself says its goal is to provide an updated number of those who are homeless in Vancouver and “better understand the characteristics of this population”. The rationale is that if we can understand who the homeless “are” we can understand how to help them stop being homeless. The homeless count can be seen as a tool of social control, a way of understanding the characteristics of a “deviant” population so that they can be better managed. Those who don’t pay rent for a place of their own are not participating in the market system and therefore represent a break from the social order. It is in the interests of the city, local businesses and property owners, who don’t like seeing homeless folks around their neighborhoods, to shuffle them off the streets into temporary shelters.
Gregor Robertson campaigned in his first election running for mayor on the promise of “ending homelessness by 2015”. However, that slogan soon changed to “ending street homelessness” and the focus shifted to finding ways of getting visible homeless individuals off the streets and into temporary shelters. Rather than helping end homelessness, which would require reducing poverty and intervening in Vancouver’s housing market, homeless counts simply help cities manage the social threat created by homelessness.
What does the homeless count say?
Aside from the “numbers” of sheltered and unsheltered homeless, the homeless count also presents a descriptive profile of the homeless population in Vancouver. The City’s 2015 count used almost the same survey as the (federally funded) 2014 Metro Vancouver regional homeless count but with one key omission: the question that asked “What do you think is keeping you from finding a place of your own?” In 2014, the two most common responses were “low income” and “high rents”. This response clearly shows how homelessness is a systemic issue that needs to be addressed with structural changes that can reduce poverty and increase affordable housing. It is striking that the 2015 homeless count was distinctly uninterested in asking this question.
Activists use the homeless count to press for action on homelessness in Vancouver. City politicians use the homeless count to congratulate themselves for action on homelessness. But the count itself needs to be questioned. Is it a tool for ending homelessness in Vancouver? Or is it merely a tool for managing the homeless, while the injustices that perpetuate homelessness in Vancouver remain unchanged?