Homeless Counts and Migration Patterns in Metro Vancouver, Calgary, and Winnipeg

People move. That includes people who end up getting counted as homeless. How should we interpret what homeless counts tell us about these people?

To an important extent, this question brings us back to fundamental interpretations of who gets counted. Is being counted as “homeless” interpreted as a social problem: the lack of enough accessible housing? Or is it being interpreted as a person problem: identifying the “homeless” as fundamentally different from housed people?

I’m a sociologist and a housing scholar, and I think homeless counts can be really useful indicators of the social problem of housing inaccessibility. We’ve got some great solutions to this problem, which basically come down to making more housing more accessible to more people. The alternative approach, interpreting homeless counts as identifying problem people, is… really problematic. The solutions it points toward tend to involve “fixing” people (at best?) or keeping them out entirely.

We can see an example of this problematic approach at work in a recent article, entitled: “Vancouver is Canada’s dumping ground for the homeless, and this needs to stop.” The language is offensive, immediately identifying those counted as homeless as more like trash than people, and pointing toward the need to keep them out. Sure enough, the gist of the piece is that Vancouver’s homelessness problem is being driven by problem people coming here for our mild weather in combination with the concentration of supports and services here and the lack of them elsewhere. This mixes a potentially good message (we need more housing and services and supports everywhere) with a bad message (so stop providing them here) as well as the aforementioned dehumanization.

From here on out, I’m going to set aside these portions of the argument and turn my attention toward a few of the empirical claims. Correspondingly, I’m also going to focus at the metropolitan level in terms of thinking about migration and homelessness, meaning I’m setting aside how people counted as homeless, as well as supports and services, are distributed within metro areas (my position, again, is that we need more housing, supports, and services, and every neighbourhood should have them). For the rest of this piece, I’m mostly going to return to my starting question: how should we interpret what homeless counts tell us about people who move? And I’m mostly going to do it by comparing patterns of migration as they show up in homeless counts in Metro Vancouver to Calgary and Winnipeg.

First let’s start with a few relevant claims from the “dumping ground” piece that are easy to knock down. Do people counted as homeless in BC disproportionately congregate in Metro Vancouver? That’s an easy one, and the answer is: no. As I showed awhile back with a post drawing upon coordinated provincial counts, on a per capita basis, Metro Vancouver has fewer people showing up in homeless counts than most other metro and non-metro locations across BC. Why use a per capita basis? Because people counted as homeless are people. And knowing what proportion of people get counted as homeless tells us something important about where we see problems with the accessibility of housing. These problems are widespread across BC rather than concentrated in Metro Vancouver.

What about more broadly? Is Metro Vancouver Canada’s “epicentre of homelessness”? Is it due to our mild weather as claimed in the piece above? Let’s look outside BC, comparing Vancouver to Calgary and Winnipeg (where no one’s claiming mild weather). If Vancouver was really the epicentre of Canada’s homelessness crisis, you’d think we would jump out when we control for the size of the surrounding population. But quite the opposite happens. Both Calgary and Winnipeg have more people showing up in homeless counts per 10,000 residents than in Vancouver.

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So maybe Vancouver’s not the epicentre of where people are becoming homeless, but instead the place where people are disproportionately moving after they become homeless elsewhere? Except, when we look at the proportion of people counted as homeless who migrated to each city within the last year, it’s actually much higher in Calgary, and only a little lower in Winnipeg. Suddenly the idea that all Canada’s homeless people are moving to Vancouver because of the weather looks pretty… well… ludicrous.

It’s worth noting that Winnipeg was actually featured as the origin for a homeless man in Vancouver in the image accompanying the “dumping ground” piece. So we should definitely take a look at how Winnipeg’s Street Census makes available the origins of its interprovincial migrants who show up as homeless. Guess what: 23% of them came from BC!

Is Vancouver dumping its homeless on Winnipeg? That’s probably just as bad a take as the converse. A better take is that people move. And not just to Vancouver. And that people counted as homeless are first and foremost people.

But do people who show up in homeless counts move for different reasons than other people? We don’t actually have that data for Vancouver or Winnipeg. But Calgary has it! So just for comparison purposes, let’s set reason for move to Calgary in the past year for those who show up in Calgary’s Homeless Count alongside reason for move for a more general selection of the population. In this case, the most similar question and options on reason for move actually come from the USA’s Current Population Survey (Mobility Table 17), so we’ll plot the two together. (If you want to see more on reason for move data and comparability, have I got the post for you!)

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The options are worded differently in places, but I’ve attempted to harmonize them as possible, and the correspondence is pretty clear. Main reasons for move fit into the same four broad categories (work & opportunity, family, housing, other) for those who end up homeless in Calgary as for all movers in the USA, and in roughly the same proportions. Where responses differ, they tend to indicate that migrants who end up counted as homeless are taking slightly bigger risks than migrants overall. For instance, fewer people who ended up homeless in Calgary moved with a job already secured, compared to those who moved looking for work. But overall, the patterns suggest that people who move and then show up in homeless counts seem to move for pretty much the same reasons as everybody else.

People move. And moving is actually kind of risky.

Mostly moving works out pretty well, and people find work and a place to live. But sometimes it doesn’t work out. So some people move on again or return to where they came from. Others, for various reasons, find themselves homeless. Are recent movers more likely to find themselves homeless than long-time residents? Let’s compare homeless count data to general mobility data to find out.

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And there it is. Even though most people who show up in homeless counts are long-time residents, being a recent mover to a region is much, much riskier. For both intraprovincial and interprovincial migrants, moving to a new place is a brave thing. This makes intuitive sense. Recent movers have to find housing without the benefit of already having any. They join a much smaller pool of local residents displaced from their housing in the search for a new place to live without the benefit of an old place to hold onto. So overall, recent movers are much more likely to find themselves out of luck in the search for housing than long-time residents. This seems to be exactly what we see for both intraprovincial and interprovincial migrants. Why doesn’t the same pattern fit for international migrants? Several studies have aimed to answer this question, and the short answer is: because international migrants are both selected and supported differently. As a result, they’re much closer to long-term residents in terms of their reduced risk of becoming counted as homeless, even though the risk is still there.

Seeing as how they’re at greater risk for being counted as homeless, we should probably be doing more to support recent movers to our cities. ALL of our cities. How? By making more housing more accessible for them.

The resistance to making more housing more accessible sometimes comes from the xenophobic notion that housing should only go to local residents. That movers should be somebody else’s problem. There are many who’d prefer to erect walls around our cities, keeping new folks out. Other times it comes from the idea that anyone who can’t find housing must be defective, which is right where we started. And maybe it even comes from the notion that our mild weather means people don’t need housing quite as badly as elsewhere in Vancouver.

We can probably make the case for that last point by looking at how many people are left unsheltered here in Vancouver compared to Calgary and Winnipeg. Vancouver has fewer people counted as homeless per capita compared to Winnipeg and Calgary, but many more people left unsheltered. Our mild weather doesn’t seem to be drawing people here in any disproportionate fashion, but it might be enabling a callous disregard for housing needs.

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On a final note, the high proportion of those without shelter among the people counted as homeless in Vancouver might also account for the recent reactionary stance taken by many local politicians and activists. The visibility of those left without shelter makes homelessness seem a bigger problem here than elsewhere. Interpreted correctly, the statistics tell us something else. It’s not a bigger problem here. And the problem is not a floating problem population that ends up in Vancouver. The biggest problem we have is a local lack of generosity leaving less shelter space and less housing available for those who need it in Vancouver. We can fix that. And we should.

  • Methodological note: While the Metro Vancouver count covers the entire metro area, the coverage of the Calgary and Winnipeg counts may be more constrained to the central cities of each metro area. This may result in a slight conservative bias, undercounting those who would show up in a homeless count in Calgary and Winnipeg covering the entire metro areas involved. At the same time, Calgary and Winnipeg dominate the populations of their metropolitan areas in a way which Vancouver, as a central city, does not. So I use metro populations as denominators in all cases in assessing the relative prevalence of homelessness in those cities relative to general populations and migration streams. I obtain comparative statistics on metro areas via StatsCan Tables 17-10-0136-01 ; 17-10-0135-01 ; 17-10-0141-01 for homeless count reference years, or, in the case of estimating migration-based risks, for the periods leading up to reference years. I use the data to estimate populations of non-migrants (stayers & local movers), intraprovincial, interprovincial, and international migrants for each metro to use as baselines for establishing risk of showing up in homeless counts. All data and calculations are available in this spreadsheet. Please send any corrections or questions my way!

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