Hundreds of volunteers count Montreal's homeless population

Mayor Valérie Plante and Welcome Hall Mission Director Sam Watts speak with a homeless man on Peel Street.

For the second time since 2015, nearly a thousand volunteers fanned out across the streets of Montreal Tuesday evening in search of the homeless. Their goal is to get an accurate idea of how many homeless people live in the city. It’s difficult for officials to keep track of the number of homeless people using traditional methods like the census, since they don’t have mailing addresses.

The volunteers were broken into groups searching streets, parks, metro stations and parts of the underground city across 12 of the city’s boroughs.  The count’s organizers received extensive help from the STM and Montreal police in the run-up to the event, with police officers helping to identify sectors of the city where homeless people might be found.  

In 2015’s count, just over 3,000 people were identified as being homeless.   The Welcome Hall Mission's Sam Watts says it's especially important that new data be collected often, since the homeless community is always changing.  "Just because we [homeless advocates] were doing something 20 years ago doesn't mean that it's actually relevant today," he said, adding, "There are also new needs that are emerging, and we need to be able to respond to them.  So that's why you need really good data."

Officials from the city and the province worked closely with the count's organizers to help make it possible.  Mayor Valérie Plante, who led a group of volunteers through the downtown core, says the information collected Tuesday night is extremely helpful to government determing how best to help the homeless. "It gives us data to compare with the one we had [in 2015], and from there, where to assign the resources we have, which are limited," she said.

In this year’s count, organizers are also attempting to gather further demographic information from those who are counted after previous events in Toronto and Vancouver in recent years provided officials with valuable data.  Special attention during the count was given to three visible groups: the young, women and indigenous people. That was a new approach for this year’s count, and it aims to get a clearer picture of what portion of the homeless population these three at-risk groups make up.

During the day Wednesday and Thursday, about 150 additional volunteers will meet homeless people in 50 resource centres to add further clarity to the numbers volunteers gathered Tuesday.