Winnipeg and a batch of other big Canadian cities are about to conduct the first-ever census of homeless people, which will help determine whether new housing and mental-health programs are working.

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Winnipeg and a batch of other big Canadian cities are about to conduct the first-ever census of homeless people, which will help determine whether new housing and mental-health programs are working.

Called a point-in-time count, it will take a one- or two-night snapshot of Winnipeg's homeless population -- those in emergency shelters such as Siloam Mission, those living in hotel rooms and those sleeping rough outside.

The city is nearly done drafting a request for proposals looking for local agencies willing to conduct the count. The census is mandated as part of the federal government's new $600-million round of homelessness funding, $28.7 million of which has begun flowing to Winnipeg. A count is also a key first step in the city's new plan to end homelessness, unveiled in April.

"Without some baseline data to set the scope of the challenge, the problem can seem overwhelming and hopeless," said Brian Bechtel, director of the Winnipeg Poverty Reduction Council. "It's not, but without tangible evidence to the contrary, it can seem that way."

In Winnipeg, which has a stubborn homelessness problem, only the roughest estimates exist. The city's new homelessness-eradication plan pegs the number at about 2,750.

The tricky part is defining who is homeless. It's relatively easy to track the number of people staying in one of the city's eight major homeless shelters on a given night. That number is estimated to be 350. It's also reasonably straightforward to count the 700 to 1,000 people living in single-room occupancy hotels such as the McLaren or the Yale.

More difficult is counting the people who eschew shelters and sleep outside. It's nearly impossible to count the hidden homeless, those who couch surf or crash with friends and family. It's unlikely the census will capture those people.

"The key thing about a count is not necessarily that it give a precise indisputable number, because no method of counting will be perfect. But done consistently over time, the trends will become clear," said Bechtel. "Right now, nobody can say definitively whether homelessness in Winnipeg is worsening or improving."

Ottawa's homelessness strategy, which focuses on a "housing first" model for people with chronic mental illness, aims to shrink the number of people using shelters and the number of people sleeping rough by 20 per cent over five years. Winnipeg's homelessness strategy aims to do the same.

Ottawa is still working on specific guidelines, but the census will likely ask how long each person has been homeless and whether he or she is aboriginal or a veteran, in order to help tailor programs. In the United States, where big cities do federally mandated counts every two years, census-takers also often ask about mental-health issues, disabilities and a whether a person has a history of abuse.

Manitoba MP and Minister of State for Social Development Candice Bergen, who travelled to Washington D.C., to learn how point-in-time counts are done there, said recently measuring success is critical.

"My vision is that we create an integrated approach to point-in-time counts that's rooted in evidence while working within our Canadian context," Bergen told a homelessness conference in Vancouver earlier this month. "We want to build an integrated, consistent and co-ordinated approach to conducting point-in-time counts."

It's not yet clear when the count will be done. Ottawa is still working on guidelines to determine exactly how each of Canada's 10 largest cities, from Halifax to Vancouver, will conduct their count, so there's consistency. It's expected the counts will be done by April 1, when cities implement the "housing first" programs.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca