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How Canada is working to bridge the homelessness data gap

Cheryl Forchuk, assistant scientific director at the Lawson Health Research Institute. Caitrin Pilkington/Cabin Radio

At a forum in Yellowknife on Wednesday, lead researcher Cheryl Forchuk presented preliminary data on homelessness across the country to NWT housing advocates.

The study, called Homelessness Counts, comes from the Lawson Health Research Institute, where Forchuk acts as assistant scientific director. Its aim is to help solve a national data gap on homelessness. 

Last year, Canada’s auditor general Karen Hogan issued a stern report reprimanding federal departments for not collecting data needed to determine whether efforts to address homelessness are succeeding.

“One of my biggest concerns is the lack of federal accountability for achieving Canada’s target to reduce chronic homelessness by half by 2028,” Hogan told the House of Commons in November. 

The issue isn’t just federal. Earlier last year, Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland raised concerns that Housing NWT does not collect data on the gender and ethnicity of those living in its housing units, the number of tenants evicted from those units, nor any statistics around homelessness.



Cleveland said it was “astonishing and disappointing” that the territory’s then-unreleased homelessness strategy would not include those figures. 

“Data is important,” she said. “It improves people’s lives, informs decision-making, shows trends, allows us to respond to challenges before they evolve into a crisis, alerts us if we need to pivot, gains trust in stakeholders, and provides strong arguments for funding.

“Data allows our strategies to actually be strategic.”

Forchuk said that isn’t unusual. Across Canada, her team has found that provinces and territories aren’t effectively collecting or using data on a rapidly evolving housing crisis.



For decades, housing has been relegated to provinces and territories, leading to irregularities in how data is collected and shared across the country.

Along with trying to understand the scale of existing information gaps, Homelessness Counts researchers are looking for ways to better integrate existing databases and provide strategies to measure homelessness.

“We know we can do better,” Forchuk said. “For healthcare, for example, it’s at the provincial level, but each province and territory has to send information to the Canadian Institute for Health and Information.”

Information gaps are worse in small communities

Over the past three years, with support from Reaching Home and the Public Health Agency of Canada, researchers collected data from 28 communities, interviewed more than 400 homeless individuals, and held focus groups with more than 200 service providers. 

They found while small and rural communities have similar rates of homelessness to urban centres, rural numbers often go unreported. 

Canada does collect data through Reaching Home, a community-based program aimed at preventing and reducing homelessness. But Forchuk said those figures don’t tell the whole story. 

“They know their data is limited,” she said, adding it’s based on shelters.

“The problem is, people use those numbers as if that’s the total number of homeless people in this country, and funding is still based on those numbers.”



According to Forchuk, fewer than 70 communities across Canada collect and submit data to Reaching Home, typically intake data from shelters. 

In rural and remote areas, the team found there are less likely to be shelters and when they do exist, they often fail to meet the needs of the entire community. 

“If you’re in a large centre, you’re more likely to have a youth centre, a women’s shelter, a family shelter,” Forchuk said.

“If you’ve got 2,000 people, you’re going to have one shelter, and it’s going to benefit some people more than others.”

In rural areas, Forchuk believes there could be significantly higher numbers of hidden homeless than current information shows. This, combined with other issues around outdated technology, a dearth of data-sharing tools and siloing between service providers, may have led to significant inaccuracies.

“Our numbers are totally out of whack. We could probably triple them,” she said. 

While stories about urban encampments tend to dominate national headlines, Forchuk believes every Canadian community is struggling. National problems typically require a collaborative effort from every level of government, she said, but policymakers often depend on hard evidence to justify funding decisions. 

“There is federal and provincial funding available, but you have to have data to prove you have a problem,” she said, adding that’s an issue many communities have raised. “Even though it was quite obvious there was a problem, they didn’t have the data to back it up.” 

With their findings, the Homelessness Counts team hope to lay the foundation for a standardized, national database that will allow policy-makers and practitioners to make more informed decisions.