Record number of people homeless in city: count
Advocate says all governments must step up as crisis escalates
A count of Saskatoon's homeless population found a record 550 people living on the streets, confirming fears that the city's homelessness crisis is only growing worse.
Agencies say the total — the highest recorded since the counts began in 2008 — is nonetheless just a fraction of the actual number of homeless people in the city.
“I'm kind of at a loss for words, to be honest,” said Priscilla Johnstone, executive director of the Saskatoon Housing Initiatives Partnership.
She is calling on all three levels of government for help.
“Now, if anything, it's actually more dire than ever to try and put those resources together to try and support (them). One non-profit or community entity can't do this on their own.”
The count is a one-day blitz; dozens of volunteers interview thousands of pedestrians.
“It's always an underestimate,” said Dr. Isobel Findlay, a University of Saskatchewan academic who is the research lead for the pointin-time count. But she said it offers a “lay of the land” by identifying the causes of homelessness, and potential solutions.
In 2022, the count identified familiar themes of substance use, inadequate social housing and the lasting trauma inflicted by the residential school system, all of which were identified as drivers of homelessness in the city.
David Fineday led volunteers to the back alleys where he said many homeless people gather. He knows those locations because he has been homeless five times in the last 30 years, he said.
The Riversdale resident said he encountered couples who were homeless, and people who had been sleeping rough for months on end.
“Those were the real answers. They had answers right from the heart,” Fineday said.
Johnstone said the count was organized in six weeks, due in part to factors outside SHIP'S control. The agency recruited about 90 volunteers, short of its target of between 120 and 150. The survey coincided with the week when social assistance cheques are issued, a time many people are shopping for supplies and thus not on the sidewalk. Surveyors thus expected lower numbers.
Instead, they identified 15 per cent more people than the last count in 2018. A planned count in 2020 was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since then, changes to how the provincial government issues social assistance payments have been blamed for widespread evictions. Johnstone said clawbacks of COVID-19 aid have put many vulnerable people in a pinch.
Shelters, including a new one recently opened by the Saskatoon
Tribal Council, reported that they were overflowing last winter.
A core issue is income compared to the cost of housing. Unsurprisingly,
inadequate revenue was the No. 1 cause of homelessness identified by respondents, followed by mental health and substance
use issues. About 68 per cent of respondents said “more money” would help them find stable housing. More than 60 per cent said they needed help finding an affordable place.
Johnstone noted a single person in Saskatoon on the Saskatchewan Income Assistance program receives a shelter benefit of $600 a month, which is not adequate.
Findlay said it shows a need for appropriate social housing in Saskatoon, where many public units are vacant simply because of insufficient mental health supports for potential tenants. Eighty-six per cent of the respondents who answered the question said they had substance use issues and 63 per cent said they had a mental health issue. “What you're seeing is the legacy of housing disinvestment, the transfer of responsibility from the feds to the provinces,” Findlay said.
There were other barriers to getting that housing. More than 48 per cent of respondents said they needed help getting identification. More than half said help with transportation or housing applications could help them find a place.
“You have to have a bank account. You have to have ID. You have to have three references,” Fineday said. In many cases, people are forced to live in squalid conditions, he added.
“Why would you pay rent when the cockroaches can live here for free?” he joked.
This year, more than 82 per cent of homeless respondents identified themselves as Indigenous. Nearly 55 per cent of 115 respondents said they were in a foster or group home as a child. More than half said they or their families were personally affected by the residential school system.
That did not surprise Fineday, who was born on Sweetgrass First Nation and was taken as part of the Sixties Scoop — a mass removal of Indigenous children from their homes. Fineday has since worked to reconnect with his culture. He said the legacy of that discrimination continues to affect his community. “That's why I live on 20th. This is my family now,” Fineday said. “I fell in a crack., but the crack became a ditch. Then it became a street.”
Johnstone said SHIP intends to share its complete data set at a community barbecue event on Aug. 5.