Congratulations to Ron Kneebone, Meaghan Bell, Nicole Jackson and Ali Jadidzadeh on the release of the research paper, Who are the Homeless? Numbers, trends, characteristics of those without homes in Calgary. University of Calgary, The School of Public Policy SPP research Papers. Volume 8. Issue 11. March 2015

The data contained in the report informed Calgary’s Updated Plan to End Homelessness and the 14 actions identified as instrumental to ending homelessness in Calgary.

To download the Research Paper, click HERE.

To download a copy of Ron Kneebone’s presentation at the media conference, click HERE.

For Immediate Release

The School of Public Policy releases surprise findings on homeless: Critical for understanding public policies needed to resolve Issue

 Calgary – In 2008, Calgary was the first city in Canada to institute a 10-year plan to end homelessness. The plan was introduced in part due to the steady and rapid growth in homelessness in the city since 1992. Since 2008 growth in the number of homeless people has stopped despite a rapidly growing city. The number of people enumerated as homeless by point-in-time counts has fallen from 304 persons per 100,000 population to 256 persons per 100,000 population in 2014, a drop of more than 15 per cent.

According to a report released today by The School of Public Policy and author Ron Kneebone, the report looks beyond simple counts of the number of homeless people and examines how people who are homeless use emergency shelters. Tracking shelter use over a five year period by nearly 33,000 individuals, discovered that contrary to what might be thought to be true, the great majority (86%) of people who use emergency shelters in Calgary do so very infrequently and for only short periods of time. Kneebone states “only a tiny minority, just 1.6% of all shelter users, stayed in shelters for very long periods. These “chronic” users visited shelters an average of three and a half times and stayed a total of 928 days over the five years of our study, occupying one-third of shelter beds.”

Moving people who represent the 1.6% from emergency shelters into stable, supportive housing, delivers savings in the form of reduced interactions for these people with the criminal justice and health-care systems; savings that have been shown in other studies to significantly off-set the cost of supportive housing.

Planning to end homelessness has always been an ambitious goal. While the homeless serving community has made significant gains in understanding how best to solve the problem, greater effort may be required of local, provincial and federal policy makers to find ways of resolving the issue that is at the heart of Calgary’s homelessness problem; namely, the lack of affordable rental accommodations.

The paper can be downloaded HERE.

 Media Contact:

 Morten Paulsen


First Annual Canadian Homelessness Data Sharing Initiative

 By:  Nick Falvo

On May 4, 2016, approximately 40 people attended the First Annual Canadian Homelessness Data Sharing Initiative, sponsored in Calgary by the Calgary Homeless Foundation and the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy.  Those attending included government officials, researchers and students.  Here are 10 things to know about the event.

  1.  The Data Sharing Initiative was jointly organized by the Calgary Homeless Foundation (CHF) and the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy. A major goal was to bring together persons with access to various forms of homelessness data for a one-day event for the first time.  Both CHF and SPP provided cash and in-kind support to make this inaugural event happen.
  2.  When researchers want to access data on homeless persons in Canada, there isn’t a single point of access. Rather, data is both collected and accessed in a variety of ways.   When it comes to data collected about persons experiencing homelessness, there are three main types of data to understand.  First, there is administrative data (such as the data presented at the May 4 event by officials from Calgary, Ottawa and Toronto); this is collected on an ongoing basis by front-line professionals and often used by social workers.  Second, there is data gathered from Point-in-Time (PiT) counts (such as the data presented at the event from Montreal).  Third, there is survey data collected by researchers (such as the data presented at the event on Managed Alcohol Programs, and data presented at the event that was gathered from a study on homelessness in Northern Ontario).  The May 4 data-sharing event included discussions about all three types of data.
  3.  Canada’s federal government has data on homeless persons from roughly half of the country’s homeless shelters. This includes data gathered via the Homeless Individuals and Families Information System (HIFIS) software; it also includes data gathered via data sharing agreements (which it has with the City of Toronto, the Province of Alberta, and BC Housing).  The federal government then uses this data for policy development, measurement and program evaluation.  The federal government uses some of the data for its Community Progress Indicators Reports, which it shares with its 61 Designated Communities. (Most of these reports aren’t publicly available, but the one for St. John’s can be found here.)    The federal government uses some of the data for public documents (e.g. the National Shelter Study). 
  4.  All municipally-funded Toronto homeless shelters are required to use the Shelter Management Information System (SMIS) database system. This is a web-based software that tells administrators when people enter homeless shelters and when they leave.  It must be used by all 60 of Toronto’s city-funded homeless shelters.  Among other things, it helps   administrators tell where there are empty beds.  It also helps front-line staff to manage beds in their own programs.  And it helps staff in Toronto’s central access services to refer people in need to available beds.  In the future, city officials hope to use the SMIS system to assess how much ‘social work’ support a person will likely need once they’re referred to housing; they also hope to use the system to track how people do after they’re referred from emergency shelters to housing. (It’s also thanks to the SMIS system that municipal officials in Toronto know that, on a typical night, there are more than 4,000 persons staying in Toronto shelters, and that in a typical year, more than 17,000 persons sleep in a Toronto shelter for at least once night.)  More information on Toronto’s SMIS system can be found here.
  5.  The City of Montreal has no centrally-coordinated database system for homeless shelters. However, the three main men’s shelters are using HIFIS, and other individual shelters in Montreal do keep data on their clients.  But those data are not coordinated or kept by one central body.  Likewise, Montreal-based programs that receive funding from the Homeless Partnering Strategy all keep data (which they have to provide to the federal government), though not necessarily using HIFIS.  Readers should be mindful that the homeless file in Quebec is first and foremost a provincial file; municipalities play only a minor formal role in program administration (e.g. the municipal government provides some funding to various social programs—such as day centres—that serve homeless persons).  All of Montreal’s homeless shelters are private, non-profit entities; in general, 60-70% of their budgets come from private sources (and those private funders have very few stipulations in terms of what kind of data must be kept).  Montreal did conduct its first PiT Count last year, and municipal officials have access to the dataset.  What’s more, in the summer of 2015, the City of Montreal commissioned a more detailed survey of homeless people; it was administered by four teams of paid professionals.  (Officials with both the City of Montreal and the Douglas Institute have access to data from both of these studies).
  6.  Ottawa homeless shelters have an open system. Ottawa homeless shelters must use the HIFIS system as a condition of receiving funding from the City of Ottawa; and the centralized database is hosted by the City of Ottawa.  It is an open system in that staff at one shelter can see client records elsewhere in their respective sector—that is, staff in a men’s shelter can see information gathered on one of their clients by another men’s shelter.[1] Data, once collected, is shared on request by municipal staff with a variety of external actors, including University of Ottawa researchers and the Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa.  (Note: municipal staff only release aggregate data—that is, no personally identifiable information.)  This open system has been in existence for almost 10 years.  Ottawa has never conducted a PiT Count.
  7.  Throughout Canada, there are many examples of data repositories in the natural sciences and some in the social sciences, but very few in social policy. A trusted digital repository is another term for a certified digital archive (and an archive is a place you can deposit data for the long term, where it will be managed across space and time, and where it’s backed up and has a sustainable financial plan and technology transition plan).  One example in the natural sciences is the repository created for International Polar Year (IPY) data archives.  Another example with social science data is the Irish Qualitative Research Data (IQDA) archive.  With homelessness data, since there’s no central place to deposit them, such a data repository to consolidate data resources from all sectors and levels of government would be helpful.  In addition to the actual data, the repository would include information on who collected the data, methodological guides and a data dictionary with definitions; and these would all be kept together.  This could allow for a one stop shop of shared data—some data could be kept private, with restricted access for researchers only and other datasets could be open data.  For such an initiative to get started, someone would have to do the collecting, data, curating and cataloguing of the data.  They’d also have to contact sources of the data.  Librarians and archivists are experts in this area; they would need to be very involved in the early phases of the project.  Such an initiative would require resources (i.e. time, expertise and money) but in the long run could provide the sector with data for national, provincial and local planning.
  8.  Canada’s major funding body for social sciences research has started mandating data management plans. Indeed, the Social Sciences Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) will soon start mandating data management plans.  They will also start mandating the preservation of data.  This will apply to research projects collecting large amounts of data; but it will not apply to municipal governments simply collecting administrative data, as these are not SSHRC funded research projects.  When research proposals go to SSHRC, SSHRC will expect to see money budgeted for data management; SSHRC will also ask researchers for data management plans.  Other national funding bodies may follow suit.
  9.  The one-day event allowed for some invaluable networking. Canada is a big country, and there are staff in major cities who administer homelessness data who have never met their counterparts in other cities.  This event helped us to overcome some of those silos.  For example, one provincial official discussed HIFIS with a federal official during the event, and exploratory conversations have since begun about the possibility of that province introducing the HIFIS system into its homelessness sector. 
  10.  The Data Sharing Initiative will become an annual event.


  The author wishes to thank the following individuals for invaluable assistance with this blog post:  Britany Ardelli, Steven Bulgin, Francesco Falvo, Louise Gallagher, Darcy Halber, Ron Kneebone, Eric Latimer, Tracey Lauriault, James McGregor, Kevin McNichol, Laural Raine, Aaron Segaert, Madison Smith and Shelley Vanbuskirk.  Any errors lie with the author.

[1] Ottawa’s homeless shelter system has four sectors:  men’s, women’s, family and youth.  Family shelter staff are allowed to see client data in all of the sectors because family shelters are the ‘overflow sector’ (meaning they sometimes take in clients from the other sectors).


Below are links to the minutes of the full day’s event, as well as the slide presentations.  Next year’s event will also be held in Calgary. 

MINUTES  May 4, 2016 Colloquium

The DI Data

Homeward Trust Edmonton Dataset

The At Home / Chez Soi Demonstration Project  Tim Aubry, PhD., C.Psych

The Health and Housing in Transition (HHiT) Study Tim Aubry, PhD., C. Psych. 

2016 Coordinated PiT Count – Overview and Data, HPS Dr. Patrick Hunter, Policy Analyst, HPS, ESDC

Dataset Description  HPS 2016 Coordinated Point-in-Time Count 

Data Description, The Mustard Seed Calgary   John Rook, PhD, Samantha Sexsmith

Patterns and Determinants of Housing Utilization and “Graduation” in Calgary  Ali Jadidzadeh, PhD and Nick Falvo, PhD

Homelessness in Northeastern Ontario Carol Kauppi, PhD   |   Activities

Montreal’s First PiT Homeless Count and Subsequent Survey  Eric Latimer, PhD

I Count MTL 2015 (Report)

Homelessness Data Discussion  Tracey Lauriault

Using Data for Evidence-Based Service Planning   Laural Raine, City of Toronto

Homelessness as a public issue  Aaron Segaert

Managed Alcohol Programs (MAPS): Implementation and Effectiveness  Bernie Pauly RN, PhD, Tim Stockwell PhD, Clifton Chow, MA, Kate Vallance MA, Ashley Wettlaufer, MA



By:  Nick Falvo, Ph.D., Director, Research and Data, CHF

From time to time, voluntary sector leaders—and advocates in general—come up with ideas for new spending and new social programs.  When they do this, they often focus too much on influencing elected officials, and too little on influencing senior public servants.  What’s more, it’s important that their proposals be supported by good research, in part because exaggerated claims about the benefits of their proposals may hurt them in the end.  With all of this in mind, here are 10 things to know about central agencies in Canada.

  1.  Even after a minister tells you they support your idea, there will often be further government approvals required.[1] At the federal level, this process is run by three central agencies; they are Privy Council Office (PCO), Finance Canada and Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS). Their respective roles will be discussed below. There are broadly similar functions for provincial and territorial governments (but details may vary).
  2.  For your idea to become a new program, cabinet will need to give “policy authority” and PCO supports this cabinet decision-making process. PCO coordinates the meetings of cabinet and cabinet committees, provides advice to the prime minister on cabinet business and briefs the chair of committees on agenda items. During this process, PCO analysts play a “challenge function role” (this will be a recurring theme), meaning they critically assess and examine proposals as they come forward. Questions that might get asked by PCO officials in Ottawa include: Is this an area of federal jurisdiction?  Does this initiative have intergovernmental implications?  Have you consulted on this with other departments within the federal government? (If no such consultation has taken place, PCO officials will coordinate a meeting among staff from various federal departments.)  PCO officials might call into question the rationale or evidence used to support the proposal and if a similar program exists elsewhere, PCO officials will point this out.  PCO will also ensure that the political implications are spelled out.
  3.  Once you have policy authority from cabinet, a new program will still need budgetary approval through Finance if it involves new money. Finance provides funding authority or a “source of funds” for new proposals through the budget process. Departments and Ministers generally make a request to the Minister of Finance and it gets assessed by public servants in the Department of Finance, who also play a challenge function. The underlying question asked by Finance officials is “Does this initiative really require new money?” My sources in Ottawa have three unofficial mottos that Finance officials can almost always be expected to say.  The first is “How much will that cost?” The second is “Why can’t you do that from your existing budgetary allotment?” And the third is “No” (hopefully, the last one is not so consistent).  It’s also important to note that the budget process doesn’t just assess the merit of spending money on your idea on a yes-or-no basis, but also the comparative merit of different proposals. You’re competing against other ideas for scarce resources.  Finance officials are suspicious of lofty promises that a proposal will save large sums of money somewhere else; they hear this often.  If the proposal has the potential to save money elsewhere, be prepared to demonstrate this with precision and nuance.
  4.  Treasury Board, a committee of cabinet, provides implementation authority for proposals and this approval process gets into the details of how the program will be run. Cabinet policy authority is sometimes thought of as “agreement in principle”, while Treasury Board is where the details get discussed. TBS officials play a challenge function that is focused on how the proposal will be implemented rather than challenging the basic idea. They will want to know the risks inherent in the proposed initiative and how they are addressed. They’ll also want to know if the proposal is compliant with other federal policies and they’ll want to know if the details of the proposal are logistically sound and realistic.  For example, if a complex program is proposed with a plan for three staff persons to run it, TBS officials will call this into question.  In Ottawa these days, treasury board officials are also very focused on the measurement of outcomes.
  5.  There is typically some overlap between what the different central agencies do. For example, in Ottawa, PCO officials might ask how results for a new program might be measured (even though that’s more typically thought of as a question asked by TBS officials). Likewise, PCO officials might also scrutinize a cost-benefit analysis that is supporting a pitch (even though similar scrutiny might be provided by finance officials). And the central agencies work closely together.
  6.  At the end of the day, if cabinet really wants a new program or new spending, central agencies won’t stop the initiative. An inherent principle underlying representative, executive government is that ministers are ultimately the decision-makers. Public servants, meanwhile, operate with the principle of “fearless advice, faithful implementation.”
  7.   In Ottawa, even the Minister typically has to wait until Budget Day to know if each proposal has been accepted. That’s because the final decision on every budget item is made between the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister, and their decision is usually kept secret—even from the rest of cabinet—until the budget is released. (In Ottawa, proposals for a new program or new spending are typically made months before.)
  8.  A key take-away from all of this is that, when voluntary sector organizations advocate for a new program or new spending, they should think about both elected officials and senior public servants. Indeed, it’s important to engage senior public servants early and often. If an elected official likes your proposal, do not assume that members of the senior public service won’t eventually give it the third degree.  Ideally, as many senior public servants as possible should hear about your proposal directly from your organization before it arrives to them via official channels.
  9.  New proposals should be supported by sound research. Just because an elected official doesn’t scrutinize your cost-benefit analysis or your long-term savings calculations, doesn’t mean senior public servants won’t. Staff in both central agencies and line departments will appreciate intellectually honest analysis, the humble presentation of information and well-referenced propositions. The challenge function at the central agencies will involve dozens of very smart people reviewing and assessing the proposal; your proposal (sponsored by the department and minister) will stand up much better if it has a strong problem definition (a.k.a. the rationale for why action is needed) and recommendations supported by evidence.
  10.  Exaggerated claims about your proposal will probably burn you in the end. Consider a statement such as: “This proposed program will revolutionize this sector because nothing this great has ever been done before.” That might get you traction in the media and with some elected officials; but always consider the roles of central agencies discussed above. Senior public servants have heard such statements before and will likely scrutinize every aspect of such a claim.

The author wishes to thank Francesco Falvo, Louise Gallagher, Darcy Halber, Kayle Hatt, Alex Himelfarb, Kevin McNichol, Michael Mendelson, Leslie Pal, John Stapleton, Katherine White and one anonymous reviewer for invaluable assistance with this.  Any errors are his.   [Author:  Nick Falvo, Ph.D., Director, Research and Data, Calgary Homeless Foundation]

[1] An important exception is in the case where your idea happens to be within the minister’s existing authority and, more importantly, within the existing department/ministry budget and not especially politically contentious.

Guest Blog By: Nick Falvo, PhD

During the COVID-19 pandemic, officials in Canada’s major cities have partnered with health officials and others to create more physical distancing for persons experiencing homelessness. In a recent report (available here) I provide an overview of what this has looked like in the following cities: Toronto; Montreal; Vancouver; Calgary; Edmonton; Ottawa; Winnipeg; Quebec City; Hamilton; Regina; Saskatoon; and St. John’s.

Here are 10 things to know

1. The report was commissioned by the Calgary Homeless Foundation (CHF).
As the System Planner for Calgary’s Homeless-Serving System of Care, CHF was interested in scanning what homelessness officials in other cities were doing during this unprecedented time. While the report was initially intended for internal use, CHF decided to release it publicly so that homelessness officials, researchers and advocates in other cities could learn more about the national picture.

2. Homelessness officials in Canada’s major cities have created more physical distancing through a variety of measures.
They have created more physical distancing at existing shelters, opened new facilities, and created space for both isolation and quarantine. Toronto and Vancouver are noteworthy in that both cities have secured large numbers of hotel rooms.

3. Officials in most of Canada’s large cities have continued to move persons directly from emergency shelters into permanent housing.
They have also developed innovations. For example, several cities have developed new models of moving people from homelessness into permanent housing. The report discusses these in detail.

4. Networks of cooperation have generally improved during this crisis; this is especially true with health officials.
In several cases, local health officials were perceived to have not been very engaged in homelessness prior to the pandemic, but improved their approach during the pandemic. It is hoped that these improved forms of collaboration will continue.

5. Many homelessness officials have expressed frustration with the lack of cooperation from the corrections sector.
The report finds officials in correctional facilities commonly discharge inmates without housing plans and without reaching out to homelessness officials to coordinate a transition into emergency shelter (however, Quebec City is an important exception here).

6. Across Canada, a surprisingly large number of newly-created spaces for persons experiencing homelessness are staying open (or re-locating).
Put differently, the new physical distancing arrangements put in place during the pandemic appear to be having a remarkable amount of staying power. The state of this ‘new normal’ will vary by city, however. For example, most emergency shelters in Calgary and Edmonton do not expect to be able to comply with a two-metre requirement.

7. Challenges remain in the sector.
While the current situation varies across Canada, the following challenges remain in the sector as a whole: outdoor sleeping; shared bathrooms and other common areas (as well as the additional costs of cleaning associated with these shared spaces); and new homelessness created by the economic downturn.[1]

8. Canada’s federal government has made important new funding announcements since the start of the pandemic.
The Government of Canada announced $157.5 million in one-time funding for Reaching Home in March 2020 (Reaching Home is the federal government’s main funding vehicle for homelessness). Further, in September 2020, the Government of Canada announced an additional $236.7 million for Reaching Home, along with $1 billion for modular housing, the acquisition of land, and the conversion of existing buildings into affordable housing.

9. However, all of these funding enhancements are temporary.
There has been no enhancement to permanent federal homelessness funding announced since the start of the pandemic. An enhancement to permanent funding could: support local officials in maintaining the improved physical distancing; assist in transitioning more people from both emergency shelters and outdoor encampments into permanent housing; and help pay for increased cleaning costs and staffing needs associated with the ‘new normal’ discussed above.

10. The report recommends the enhancement of the Canada Housing Benefit (CHB).
Central to the National Housing Strategy is the recent launch of the CHB, providing financial assistance to help low-income households afford their rent. It is expected that half of this money will come from the federal government, and the other half from provinces and territories. The CHB was supposed to launch nationally on 1 April 2020; however, just five provinces have formally agreed to terms on the new benefit. The federal government could increase the value of this benefit, which could encourage provinces and territories to sign on. For example, the federal government might offer 2/3 or 3/4 cost-sharing.

In sum: Homelessness officials across Canada have worked hard to improve physical distancing during the pandemic. Permanent increases in federal funding would help them both maintain this ‘new normal’ and find more permanent, affordable housing for persons experiencing homelessness.

I wish to thank Susan Falvo for assistance with this blog post.

[1] I have recently written another report about new homelessness created by the downturn. That report, commissioned by Employment and Social Development Canada, will be released in December 2020.

In our new webinar series, presenters describe and discuss how their data sets address homelessness to foster discussion on future research. 

On June 3, 2021 Calgary Homeless Foundation, in partnership with the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary, launched the first of our Data That Makes a Difference webinar series.  

 The subject of this first webinar focused on how short cross-sectional studies of the characteristics of homeless people garner a lot of attention, but several other varieties of data, now neglected, bear a lot more useful information. But neglecting these often neglected data has led to serious errors – and might do so again. 

 Our first webinar was attended by over 110 individuals, and our presenter discussed two varieties of data in particular – point in time counts and stocks and flows – demonstrating how they can illuminate both policy-making and understanding.  

 A full recording of the webinar is now available on the Data That Makes a Difference website 

 During the presentation, many attendees joined the lively question and answer discussion. Any questions that were not addressed during the live program, were answered by the keynote speaker, and can be accessed HERE 

 Our Presenter:  

Dan O’Flaherty is a professor of economics at Columbia University, and teaches urban economics and the economics of race. His books include Making Room: The Economics of Homelessness (1996), How to House the Homeless, with Ingrid Ellen (2010), The Economics of Race in the United States (2015), and Shadows of Doubt: Crime, Stereotypes, and the Pursuit of Justice, with Rajiv Sethi (2019). He has served as an aide to Kenneth A. Gibson, the first African American mayor of a major northeastern city. 

 Dan O’Flaherty has been studying homelessness for 30 years. He does so from the point of view of an economist, which means that he bases his ideas and recommendations on data, which is the focus for Data That Makes a Difference. 

 Mr. O’Flaherty has a ‘relaxed’ style of speaking and writing that makes difficult concepts and associated policy recommendations easily understood by non-experts. 

These characteristics mean he can blend the best of both worlds; as he is well-respected as an expert in the field of the economics of homelessness, but he is also able to place what he finds into a broader context using familiar, non-technical language. 


 Future Data That Makes a Difference Webinars: 

Information about future webinars will be announced as details become available. Visit for more information.