Laural Raine MES'07, Director, Service Planning & Integrity at City of Toronto comments.
New data that allows the city of Toronto to more closely track the number of homeless people accessing the shelter system shows a steady increase in the amount of new users per month.
This week the city released a new online “dashboard” that contains data showing how homeless people “flow” — enter and exit — through the shelter system over time.
The goal of the dashboard is to spot trends in shelter use and be able to analyze them and provide solutions to the issues or problems identified, the city said. Another goal is ensuring use of the shelter system by homeless people is more transparent to researchers and the public.
One data set includes figures showing newly identified users who entered the system from January of last year over a 12-month period.
The graphic shows that although there were 900 newly identified users in January 2020, that number had trailed off by mid-May to 390 people.
Laural Raine, a director with the city’s shelter, support and housing administration (SSHA), said the drop off was probably attributable to a decrease in potential shelter users who were refugees that couldn’t come to Canada due to COVID-19 related travel restrictions.
However, despite that, by January of this year the number of new shelter users had shot back up, with a total of 647 new people occupying a bed that month.
“That’s 647 people in January who had never used the shelter system before, who were newly homeless. It just shows you the issues we are facing in Toronto and the reason why we need to take some decisive action,” Mary-Anne Bedard, the general manager of SSHA, said.
People become new users for various reasons including loss of housing due to affordability issues, family breakup, job loss, mental health crises and other issues, Raine said.
To develop the dashboard, the city worked closely with the Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness, a group of community providers assembled under a single organization focused on eradicating homelessness.
Mark Aston, chair of the alliance, said he believes the rise in new users can be attributed to the onset of colder weather, and the impacts of job losses amid the economic slowdown caused by COVID-19.
He credited the dashboard with providing transparency and a new way to analyze data around shelter use that will lead to steps to act on the findings.
“The data and website will lead to evidence-based solutions. It’s a major step forward,” Aston said.
Over the course of 2020 a total of 7,617 new individuals entered the shelter system, according to the dashboard.
“That flow tells us that in order for us to reduce homelessness and potentially reduce the size of our shelter system and reduce that shelter capacity, we have to (permanently) house more people than are entering the shelter system, (so we can) actually see a net decrease each month,” Raine said.
“If you have a continual inflow into homelessness, which is what we’ve been experiencing, the pressure on the homeless system is unrelenting. You’re always responding in an emergency, bringing on extra shelter beds with little notice or little ability to plan,” Bedard said.
“If it (the number of new people coming in) doesn’t match the number of people that are able to move out, it really makes the case for why governments need to invest their money in longer term solutions — in supportive housing, in the prevention pieces, because otherwise you’re just always going to have to be building a larger and larger shelter system,” Bedard added.
Prior to the dashboard the city relied on its Street Needs Assessment survey, a one-night snapshot every conducted every two years, where homeless people in shelters and on the street are counted.
There’s also a nightly shelter occupancy report.
The monthly data counts in the dashboard are new.
Despite the increases in new users, the overall use of the shelter system by homeless people has remained fairly steady in the past year, around 7,600 to 7,800 individuals at the end of each month since June.
These figures take in long-term “chronic users” and anyone who has used any of the city’s overnight services — including a shelter, 24-hour respite or warming centre — in the last three months at least once.
Data in the portal also includes people who have moved to permanent housing, left permanent housing to return to the shelter system, the age and gender of individuals, the number of people entering and exiting the shelter system each month (1,156 entered and 1,006 exited in January) and more.
Bedard said that before the dashboard came along it was very difficult for SSHA to know if it was making progress on the homelessness file.
“It was difficult to know whether we are getting ahead, whether strategic initiatives we are putting in place are actually having an impact.
“We’re trying to figure out what works, what should we putting more emphasis on, where are people coming from, how long are people staying, those types of things,” Bedard said.
The dashboard will be updated monthly.
Lawrence Eta, chief technology officer, for the city of Toronto, called the dashboard and the data behind it one of the pillars in the city’s technology strategy.
He said his team is working closely on the project with SSHA to ensure the data is producing meaningful information for decisions that will help reduce systemic problems related to homelessness and access to affordable housing.
“It’s a very important partnership,” Eta said.