How can we measure hidden homelessness?

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub: York University
March 11, 2016
Categories: Ask the Hub

This question came from Kristina B. via our latest website survey: "To what extent is it possible to measure "hidden homelessness" (for example, when the person cannot afford their own home and has to resort to crashing with family or friends - possibly often moving frequently)?”

It is unlikely that we will ever have precise numbers on how many people experience homelessness. Studies produce estimates and best guesses, usually based on use of services (shelters, food banks, housing agencies, etc.).

Hidden homelessness is another term for couch surfing, staying with friends/family/others, or in any housing that is unsustainable and/or temporary (like hotels or hostels). People in this category are considered “provisionally accommodated” under the Canadian definition of homelessness and are especially difficult to quantify. Though we may never have 100% accurate numbers, we work with what we have! The best way to measure hidden homelessness is to design studies that include its specific indicators and not just the standard questions about rough sleeping or shelter use.

Hidden homelessnessIdentifying the signs

In order to measure hidden homelessness, we need to know what we are looking for – though in many cases, this is easier said than done. Tanya Gulliver-Garcia wrote an excellent post on how to identify people experiencing hidden homelessness, which includes asking questions like:

  • “Do you have a safe place to sleep tonight?
  • Are you worried about your housing situation?
  • Do you need any referrals to housing or other community services?
  • How many people live in your home? (This is a great way to identify overcrowding).
  • Do you feel that you get enough to eat at home?
  • What do you do at home/how do you spend your time?”

 As I wrote above, people experiencing hidden homelessness can be staying with others, in hotels/hostels, or other unstable forms of housing. Measuring hidden homelessness requires coming with the right questions (and a solid data measurement tool) to accurately identify people as experiencing hidden homelessness. Reading the methodology section of studies – and perhaps enlisting the help of experienced researchers – might be a good place to start in learning how other people have done this.

That said, there are a few main methods that researchers tend to use in this area:

1. Point-in-Time Counts

Point-in-Time Counts have traditionally relied on shelter systems - counting only those present at the time and therefore missing people who may be on the streets or experiencing hidden homelessness. This changed during the 2016 Canadian Coordinated Point-in-Time Count, during which many communities elected to also measure hidden homelessness in a variety of different ways.

Getting an extensive count of people experiencing hidden homelessness requires going outside of the traditional homelessness service system and counting at locations like public libraries, food banks, bottle deposits, community health centres, and other drop-in programs. It may also be necessary to coordinate magnet events – a strategy often recommended to reach youth - to draw in people who counters may not otherwise come across. Offering entertainment, resources, food and service referrals are common during such events.

As with every other method, Point-in-Time Counts cannot offer a 100% complete picture of homelessness. What they do offer are valuable snapshots of homelessness at a given time and tell us the minimum number of people experiencing it. To learn more about how hidden homelessness may be captured in Point-in-Time Counts, go through slides from our hidden homelessness webinar

2. Random telephone surveys

This is a quantitative method that aims to simply produce numerical data. Inspired by this model, researchers in a 2009 pilot study used random telephone surveys to estimate hidden homelessness in Vancouver. Respondents were asked a series of questions, beginning with: “Is there anyone currently staying with this household on a temporary basis who does not have a regular home/address of their own due to lack of money or other means of support or because they have no other alternatives?”

After completing 1,027 interviews, the researchers applied their sample findings to the total population of Vancouver households, estimating that 9,196 people were experiencing hidden homelessness at the time of the survey. 

There are many limitations to this method, as it excludes households without a landline or who use cell-phones exclusively. It was also difficult to follow up with respondents and the people living with them, which impacted the amount of qualitative data the researchers were able to include. Even so, this method of estimating the number of people experiencing hidden homelessness in a given area is considered effective. 

3. In-person questionnaires & focus groups

These methods fall in the qualitative category, meaning they rely on people to provide answers and descriptive information to tell us what we need to know. Many researchers combine these with some sort of quantitative tool. A 2011 study of hidden homelessness and precarious housing among newcomers, asylum seekers and refugees in Toronto gathered data in the following three ways:

  • Focus groups with settlement and housing workers
  • Questionnaire surveys of refugees, asylum seekers and other immigrants
  • Focus groups with refugees and asylum seekers

This mixed-methods approach allowed the researchers to learn about the context of settlement and housing from its workers, and directly ask members of the study population (in this case, refugees, asylum seekers and other immigrants) about their specific housing and income situations. The questionnaire asked about respondents’ current living situation, and moved on to questions about hidden homelessness. 

Each respondent was asked if he or she was currently experiencing or had experienced six specific housing problems that included overcrowding, poorly maintained and unhealthy housing, and three indicators of hidden homelessness. Respondents could also indicate if they were experiencing conflict with neighbours, discrimination, or difficulty getting to work or school from their current locations. Problems with the landlord or management company were also explored. Another question asked whether the respondent had ever had to stay with friends or family because he or she couldn’t afford housing, to stay in a shelter or hostel or to live in a place not intended as housing. While the first two categories indicate hidden homelessness, the last two are evidence of absolute homelessness. Respondents were also asked how often they had moved since arriving in Canada and whether they had ever been evicted, measures of precarious housing.

Survey responses are then interpreted and presented in a quantitative and qualitative analysis. This is done so we know how many respondents answered in each determined category, and allows for a broader interpretation via the more long-term responses.

Many other studies follow a mixed-method design. For example, a 2011 study of smaller communities in British Columbia used random telephone interviews with broader communities, in-person interviews with workers, and in-person interviews with people experiencing hidden homelessness; and a 2010 study of hidden homelessness among Aboriginal Peoples in prairie cities used a combination of structured surveys, informal interviews and talking circles. Using multiple methods is often a great way to obtain lots of rich information from a variety of sources. 

For more information, check out:

This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at and we will provide a research-based answer.

Photo credit: Raising the Roof

Emma Woolley is a 2016 graduate of York University's Bachelor of Social Work program with a background in publishing, freelance writing and digital communications. Her interest in affordable housing, homelessness, 2LGBTQ rights, and social justice led her to work with The Homeless Hub. Emma is now pursuing her Master of Social Work at The University of Toronto, where she is focusing on anti-oppressive, strengths-based, recovery-oriented, and critical approaches to mental health care.

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