Ethical Research


In almost all counts, trained volunteers administer most of the PiT Count surveys. The benefits for this are two-fold. First, the PiT Count provides an opportunity for members of the public to learn more about the issue of homelessness and engage, often for the first time, with people who are experiencing it. Second, the use of volunteers reduces the cost of the count, allowing for a more fulsome methodology.

Ideally, you will recruit a number of volunteers that have experience working with individuals experiencing homelessness. This could include service providers, social workers, healthcare staff and outreach workers. The count is a key opportunity to engage a range of stakeholders, including the public, in a collective effort to address homelessness. Consider the count as an opportunity to raise awareness and gain allies in the broader movement to end homelessness.

Volunteers will also provide you with important feedback to improve your process for the next count, and they can become a resource to tap on a regular basis, resulting in a win-win outcome as they increase their skills and you reduce your long-term recruitment costs.

– Excerpt from the COH PiT Count Toolkit

A Focus on Youth

Youth Counts, though smaller in scale than community-wide PiT Counts, will still require volunteers. While it may be feasible to conduct your Youth Count entirely with volunteers from the youth-serving sector, it is valuable to involve the public. Treat the Youth Count as an opportunity to build awareness and combat stereotypes about youth homelessness.

The COH PiT Count Toolkit contains thorough guidance and resources for managing volunteers. The following table provides a brief overview of this guidance, along with considerations specific to a Youth Count. For more information on any topic, refer to the links in the “Topic” column. 





Volunteer Structure


Selecting Team Leaders

Volunteers should work in teams of 2-3. Each team should have a dedicated Team Leader responsible for the safety of the team and ensuring the count methodology is followed.

Youth Count Team Leaders should have experience working with youth, preferably vulnerable youth. Shelter staff, outreach workers, teachers and child and youth workers are good candidates. While teams of 2-3 are adequate for street, shelter and service counts, you may require more volunteers at magnet events.

Volunteer Recruitment

To recruit diverse volunteers, promote the count through various avenues, such as social media, volunteer centres, online forums and media outlets.

Use your network of Youth Count partners to recruit volunteers. Request that your Indigenous and LGBTQ2 service partners recruit volunteer through their networks. Additionally, encourage school staff to participate; this may help to build support for future youth homelessness initiatives. Carefully consider the use of youth volunteers. Refer to Peer Volunteers for more information.

Estimating the Number of Volunteers

To estimate the required number of volunteers, first determine how many volunteer teams you need to cover each survey location. Other considerations are the length of your survey and the number of expected “no-shows” on the day of the count.

In addition to the guidance found in the COH PiT Count Toolkit, consider the number of volunteers you need to conduct any magnet events and/or service counts. It may be difficult to anticipate the number of youth who will attend your magnet event, so make sure there are plenty of volunteers on hand.


Assigning Teams

Create balanced teams. Assign less experienced volunteers to teams with individuals who are more familiar with youth and/or homelessness.

If you are recruiting youth volunteers, consider pairing youth with more experienced volunteers, particularly those with experience in the sector.

Other Volunteer Management Topics

Refer to the COH PiT Count Toolkit for guidance on:

Other Youth Count Considerations

In addition to the guidance above, there are a number of considerations specific to maintaining the privacy and safety of youth. Youth experiencing homelessness are often in a vulnerable situation. As you develop your volunteer recruitment and management plan, ensure that you are prioritising the safety of your volunteers and youth participants.

Public Volunteers vs. Sector Volunteers

As previously stated, recruiting members of the public to participate in the Youth Count has several benefits. However, carefully consider whether there are survey locations that are better served by volunteers from the homelessness or youth-serving sectors. For example, for the safety of youth and volunteers, inexperienced volunteers should not be sent to encampments, since this may pose a safety risk. Outreach workers are a better choice to serve these areas. Similarly, if you are conducting a service count, it may be preferable to use service staff to survey youth, rather than volunteers from the public. Work with your partners to determine the best fit for volunteers.


Proceed with caution if you are considering using a self- administered survey. Levels of literacy among youth can vary. If you are concerned that youth may be unwilling to disclose certain information to a volunteer, your Youth Count survey may be too invasive.

Peer Volunteers

In Canada and the US, youth with lived experience have participated in counts in various ways. Undoubtedly, input from youth is invaluable. Youth provide helpful feedback on the survey instrument, where to locate youth and how best to promote the count. However, you must carefully consider whether you will recruit youth to conduct surveys. While some communities have had success with youth survey volunteers, others communities have been concerned as to whether youth are comfortable answering questions asked by their peers. Refer to the Youth Count! Process Study for more information. The COH recommends that you consult youth in your community to determine their preferences. If you use peer volunteers, ensure that youth have the option to complete the survey with a non-peer volunteer, if they prefer. 

Helpful Resource

PiT Count Volunteer Management (PPT) - Wally Czech, Housing First Specialist, City of Lethbridge
*Available on the COH Workspace on Homelessness


In the context of a Youth Count, it is generally impractical to run detailed checks on volunteers. This means no Youth Count Volunteer—regardless of their experience – should be alone with a youth participant or a youth volunteer. Although surveys should be conducted discreetly and privately, Youth Count volunteers must remain in sight of one another at all times. Similarly, peer volunteers, when acting on behalf of the Youth Count, should not be alone with participants.

Building Alignment: Tips & Strategies

Work with general PiT Count organizers to develop a combined call for volunteers and management plan. It is impractical and likely inefficient to run separate volunteer management processes. As the guidance above states, make every effort to recruit volunteers who have experience with youth. Allocate the most experienced volunteers to youth-specific locations such as youth shelters, transitional housing units and youth services. 

One of the most important, and resource intensive, aspects of a PiT Count is volunteer training. To be successful, volunteers must gain a basic understanding about the experiences of homelessness and a thorough grasp on the count methodology, particularly the survey instrument.

An effective PiT Count relies on clear and thorough training. Training prepares volunteers for their role as survey administrators and importantly, increases their understanding about the issue of homelessness. Having volunteers present and willing to engage in the issue is a tremendous opportunity to gain allies in our efforts to end homelessness.

– Excerpt from the COH PiT Count Toolkit

A Focus on Youth

The success of your Youth Count will depend largely on the quality of your volunteer training. The more complicated your methodology and survey instrument, the more training is required to ensure that volunteers precisely follow the instructions you have given them. Though training is resource intensive, it is an investment that must be made. Not only will properly trained volunteers ensure useful data, they will emerge from their Youth Count experience with a better understanding of youth homelessness and a greater commitment to helping end homelessness.


Who should attend training?

All survey volunteers, regardless of their prior experience with research and/or youth homelessness, must attend training. Although sector-workers are familiar with the population, they must familiarize themselves with the Youth Count survey. We recommend that you make training mandatory.

What should the training cover?

Ensure that you provide your volunteers with all the necessary information but resist the urge to conduct an overly lengthily training session. Where possible, we suggest that volunteer training be kept to a maximum of two hours. In your volunteer training, be sure to cover the following:

  • An overview of youth homelessness
  • The purpose and objectives of the Youth Count
  • The role and responsibilities of a volunteer
  • How to administer the Youth Count survey
  • What to expect on the day of the count
  • Volunteer forms
  • Safety

Where should training be held?

If you are conducting training prior to the Youth Count, choose a location that is central and easily accessible. Some communities may require multiple training locations, due to their size. Consult your Youth Count partners for suggestions.

Why is training important?

Thorough training will improve the quality of the data that you collect and ensure the safety of your volunteers and participants. Volunteers will be more willing to follow instruction if they understand the importance of doing so.  

When should training be held?

You can schedule training before the count, preferably no more than one week in advance. Alternatively, you can hold a training session at headquarters on the day of the count.  Training sessions held on the day of the count tend to be shorter. If your methodology is especially complex, we encourage you to conduct training in advance. In both scenarios, Team Leaders should be trained in advance.

Location Specific Training

Volunteers, depending on their survey location, will require different instruction. However, there are aspects of volunteer training that are applicable to all volunteers. We recommend that you hold a single training session for all volunteers, and then break your volunteers into groups depending on their roles (ex. street count volunteers, magnet event volunteers, etc.) Team Leaders, given their increased responsibilities, should receive separate training.

Youth Involvement

As you develop your training agenda, seek input from your Youth Subcommittee. Determine what role, if any, the individual members of your Youth Subcommittee want to play in volunteer training. Some youth may be willing to share their experiences with volunteers, while others may be uncomfortable doing so.

Volunteer Training Guide

Effective volunteer training will cover a lot of material in a short time period. While it is inadvisable to give volunteers homework, consider providing training guides to volunteers.  If you are holding training on the day of the count, send your volunteers electronic training materials in advance. The following table contains a number of resources, prepared by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and the Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPS), which can be adapted for your Youth Count Training.


Suggested Sections

Helpful Resources

1. Overview of the Count


2. Role of the Volunteer

COH PiT Count Toolkit: Volunteer Role Description

3. Safety

Youth Count Toolkit: Duty to Report

4. Preparing for the Count

HPS: What to Wear Infographic (Winter Count)

HPS: How to Approach Infographic

5. The Survey Instrument

Youth Count Resource: Sample Survey

6.  Interviewing Strategies

COH PiT Count Toolkit: Interviewing Guide

7. Dealing with the Media

COH PiT Count Toolkit: Media Tip Sheet

Volunteer Forms

The COH PiT Count Toolkit contains a number of volunteer management forms. These forms can be easily adapted for your Youth Count. Refer to COH PiT Count Toolkit: Working with Volunteers for the following templates:

  • Oath of Confidentiality
  • Volunteer Waiver
  • Volunteer Evaluation Form
  • Registration

More information

Refer to the COH PiT Count Toolkit: Volunteer Training for more information on:

  • Team Leader Training
  • General Training
  • Training Timing
  • Headquarters Training
  • Planning for a Safe Count

Building Alignment: Tips & Strategies

In most instances, combined training sessions will be the most practical option. In the COH PiT Count Toolkit we recommend that all volunteer training cover basic issues around age of consent and youth participation. Combined counts should place an even greater emphasis on ensuring the safety of youth participants, especially those under the age of 18. Due to the overrepresentation of LGBTQ2S youth among populations of youth experiencing homelessness, we strongly recommend that you train volunteers on the importance of asking all survey questions, including those about gender and sexuality, neutrally and without bias.

PiT Counts, though designed to be minimally invasive, must nonetheless be conducted with the utmost respect and professionalism. Though volunteers deliver surveys, it is the responsibility of PiT Count organizers to ensure that all data is collected in accordance with ethical research guidelines. Be sure to cover these topics in volunteer training.  

A Focus on Youth

There are additional factors to consider when conducting research with youth experiencing homelessness. Common research practice dictates that parental consent is required for research participants under the age of 18. In some instances, youth 16 and over can participate in research without parental consent. For many homeless youth, seeking parental consent is neither feasible nor desirable. In recognition of this, York University – as part of its Guidelines for Conducting Research with People who are Homeless – has developed a series of recommendations for working specifically with youth.

Youth Count Research Guidelines

The COH strongly recommends that Youth Count organizers develop local guidelines for conducting research with youth. The guidelines should include such information as the minimum age of consent, interview protocol, assessing risk of harm and honoraria procedures.

In the Absence of Parental Consent

We recommend that youth aged 15 and over should participate in the Youth Count survey proivded they give their informed consent. Youth under 15 can be counted on the tally sheet but should not participate in the Youth Count Survey.

Youth participants must be given access to optional counselling services and support. In a sheltered setting, support for youth may be readily available. In unsheltered environments, magnet events or service counts, it is more difficult to provide immediate access to counselling. As such, we recommend that you have a number of qualified staff on-call during the count, should their services be required. In the event that a youth requests support, an outreach team or qualified service staff member should transport the youth to the required service(s).    

Duty to Report

According to Ontario law, the public must report any youth under the age of 16 who is in need of protection. This inclues children that are facing "physical, sexual and emotional abuse, neglect, and rask of harm."

Challengingly, reporting youth who are experiencing homelessness to child protection services may have adverse consequences that are not in the best interests of the youth in question. For a more detailed explanation, refer to the Guidelines for Conducting Research with People who are Homeless. Based on your provincial laws and regulations, we recommend that you develop a protocol for Team Leaders, volunteers and service staff in the event they encounter youth under the age of 16 and/or youth at risk of harm. Do not put the onus on volunteers to determine whether to report a youth. 


Youth Count surveys should be done anonymously and all data should be kept confidential. Prior to the count, develop a plan for keeping the paper surveys and electronic data secure. All volunteers should sign an Oath of Confidentiality prior to participation.

Due to the complexity of the Youth Count methodology, and the risk of count duplication, we recommend that you develop a unique identifier system. If you are requesting names or initials as part of this system, explain the purpose of the request, and reassure youth that the unique IDs will not be used in data analysis or reporting.

Honoraria/Engagement Items

In PiT Counts and other research, it is common to recognize the time and effort expended by research participants. Many communities offer honoraria to survey participants, following either participation or completion of the survey. Other communities offer gifts of engagement at the outset of interactions, given whether or not the individuals participate in the count. Providing an engagement gift, rather than an honorarium, removes the incentive for youth to participate in the Youth Count survey more than once.

Ask your Youth Subcommittee for honoraria/engagement gift ideas. Small gift cards for coffee shops and grocery stores may be welcome. Transit passes/tokens can also be useful. Please note: cash or gift cards of large sums can be counterproductive. A Youth Count is not a traditional, controlled research environment. High value honoraria can put volunteers and survey participants at risk and increase the likelihood of duplication.

Resource Cards

The Youth Count is a good opportunity to connect youth to services and support. We recommend creating a card or pamphlet that contains information about local youth services. Volunteers should distribute the cards generously.

Consult your Youth Count Committee and partners to create an inventory of services. Consider the following service areas: education, income support, housing, emergency services, health, LGBTQ2 services, Indigenous youth services, crisis centres, Kids Help Phone. Ask your Youth Subcommittee for further suggestions.

Other information to include:

  • Brief description and purpose of the Youth Count
  • Contact details for the Youth Count Coordinator
  • A URL where the Youth Count findings will be made available and/or to subscribe to updates

More Information

Refer to the COH PiT Count Toolkit: Ethics and Informed Consent for more information on:

  • Informed Consent
  • Confidentiality
  • Honoraria 

Building Alignment: Tips & Strategies

The minimum age of participation in general PiT Counts varies across Canada. In some communities, youth must be at least 18 to participate. In other communities, volunteers can survey youth as young as 15, provided proper supports are in place. Work with general PiT Count organizers to agree on a minimum age of participation and consent protocol. We strongly recommend that youth aged 15 and over be eligible to participate in the count. Youth under the age of 15 can be counted, on the tally sheet, but not surveyed.

A great deal of planning and foresight is required to administer a count. Although no count will be perfect, you can mitigate most risks with safety plans, contingency plans and thorough volunteer training. 

A Focus on Youth

Implementing a Youth Count is much the same as implementing a PiT Count. However, due to the increased complexity of the Youth Count methodology—through service counts and magnet events—Youth Counts require even more organization and attention to volunteer management.


Sample Volunteer Survey Kits

  • Survey forms
  • Tally sheets
  • Consent scripts
  • Clipboards
  • Identification markers (yellow buttons, red tags, glowsticks, etc.)
  • Honorarium/gifts of engagement
  • Contact lists
  • Resource cards
  • Travel tokens


The more preparation you can do prior to the count, the smoother the day of the count will go. Plan to do the following in the weeks leading up to the count:

  • Review the safety plan with your police contacts.
  • Ensure all key players, including your Team Leaders, are familiar with the safety protocol.
  • Gather supplies for your magnet event(s).
  • Create the Volunteer Survey Kits.
  • Send survey forms, shelter enumeration forms and supplies to shelters and participating services.
  • Send a reminder to volunteers. Ask them to notify the Youth Count Coordinator if they are unable to attend. Reassign team members as needed.

Helpful Resource

The PiT Count Headquarters Set-Up Infographic developed by HPS and COH, lists the key components of an effective headquarters. 


Headquarters is a central, easily accessible location for volunteers to gather prior to their shift. Here, volunteers register, receive supplies, meet their teams and review key training topics. If you are conducting the components of your Youth Count at the same time, all volunteers should arrive and be deployed at the same time. If the components of your Youth Count happen at different times, the volunteers will arrive in shifts, depending on their survey location (e. g. street count, shelter count, magnet event, service count). We strongly recommend that volunteers, regardless of their assigned survey location, start and finish at headquarters. This allows you to monitor the whereabouts of your volunteers, track progress, reassign volunteers as needed and collect and review surveys at the end of the count.

If your community covers a large geographic area, you may require additional satellite locations. Assign an Assistant Youth Count Coordinator to each satellite location and communicate with them throughout the count.

If your count exceeds 24 hours, you may need to develop an alternative approach to the count administration (ex. service count volunteers meet at their assigned services, rather than at designated headquarters). 

Helpful Resource

PiT Count Logistics (PPT) – Jesse Donaldson, PiT Count Coordinator, Canadian Observatory on Homelessness

*Available on the COH Workspace on Homelessness

Command Station

Create a command station, where a group of volunteers is tasked with tracking team progress, monitoring the whereabouts of volunteers and reporting any problems to the Youth Count Coordinator. The command station should phone Team Leaders once every hour. Team Leaders should provide a status update, report any concerns, and take inventory of their supplies. The command station can dispatch extra resources, if required. Keep a “jump team” on hand—an extra group of volunteers—to deliver supplies and/or provide extra support to teams in the field.

Youth Count Partners


Consider asking trusted members of your Youth Subcommittee to lead the command station. 

Ensure your Youth Count partners are clear about their roles and responsibilities on the day of the count. Set up clear channels of communication. How will information be passed from you to the various partners? Vice-versa? In the event of an emergency, you will need to quickly mobilize your partners. The table below provides suggested roles for key Youth Count partners.



On the day of the count, police may choose to increase patrol. Ensure they do not “clear away” any youth or encampments. In some communities, police provide a dedicated phone number for the Count Coordinator to contact during the count. Consider inviting a police officer to headquarters to remind volunteers of the safety protocols.


Media can provide beneficial coverage on the day of the count. Work with media in advance to develop guidelines for their participation. We strongly discourage inviting media to accompany survey volunteers, attend magnet events or visit service locations out of respect for participants’ privacy.

Shelter/Service Staff

Ensure you have a key contact at every shelter and service location where you are surveying. Ask the key contacts to check in with you, or the command station, periodically. Be prepared to provide services with additional supplies and survey volunteers, if requested.

Counselling Support

Where possible, counselling support should be available to youth who request it.  Ask qualified staff to be on call, should a youth require support after participating in the Youth Count survey.

Outreach Teams

Outreach teams should be on standby to provide immediate support to youth who are in distress or request support. Outreach teams should be dispatched when a homeless youth, under the age of 16, is found in an unsheltered or unsafe location. Communities without youth outreach teams should work with youth services and staff to form a temporary response team for the count.


As noted, it is important to convene survey volunteers at the end of the count. First, this allows you to ensure that all volunteers have safely finished the count. Second, volunteers may be more willing to share experiences or concerns immediately after the event rather than later. Finally, and importantly, a debriefing session allows you, or a designated partner, to review the survey forms and clarify any inconsistencies or missing fields.

For more information:

Refer to the COH PiT Count Toolkit: Count Logistics for further guidance.

A Youth Count is a complex logistical exercise with many moving parts. It is important to remember that no count will be perfect. However, with adequate planning and foresight, implementing a successful count is possible. While some unforeseen circumstances out of your control may occur, always make the safety of youth and your volunteers your main priority. Potential risks can be mitigated through volunteer training and management. The following section provides guidance on how to manage and train volunteers, prepare for the day of the count, and conduct the count ethically and safely.