Expanding the Scope

Who to Count?

In traditional PiT Counts, individuals who indicate they are staying temporarily with friends are often screened out of the PiT Count process. That is, they are not “counted” in the total number of individuals experiencing homelessness. This is for good reason. A PiT Count cannot accurately enumerate the full extent of couch-surfing or hidden homelessness in a community. Given the very nature of hidden homelessness, PiT Count methods – street counts and shelter counts – will inevitably undercount the number of people experiencing hidden homelessness.

This limitation presents a challenge for communities that are focusing on youth homelessness. There is a growing recognition that youth experience homelessness differently than adults. That is, youth are more likely to be disconnected from traditional homeless-serving agencies, notably shelters. Further, youth are more likely to stay temporarily with friends, acquaintances or distant relatives – often referred to as couch-surfing. One might believe that couch-surfing is an adequate form of housing. However, these arrangements often lack stability and the broad range of material and emotional supports that youth require. If youth are less likely to be found in shelters or in outdoor spaces, this means they are also less likely to be enumerated and surveyed through a PiT Count.

“The route into homelessness for many young people is not linear and rarely is experienced as a single event.  It is more often the end result of a process that involves multiple ruptures with family and community and numerous episodes of leaving, even for short periods to temporarily stay with friends or relatives (“couch surfing”) before actually staying in an emergency shelter or in a context not suitable for human habitation (sleeping outdoors, on rooftops, in abandoned buildings, etc.). As a result, many young people who are homeless are part of the “invisible” or “hidden” homeless population. “

- Excerpt from the Canadian Definition of Youth Homelessness (forthcoming)


Neither a PiT Count nor a Youth count can adequately enumerate those at risk of homelessness (Operational Category #4). Precarious housing is an important issue but it is best measured through alternative research methods.

To better capture the experiences of homeless youth, communities conducting a Youth Count should expand their definition of homelessness – for the purposes of the count – to include a broader range of experiences. This includes youth that are couch-surfing, staying in transitional housing (any fixed-length term) and those in juvenile detention. This Toolkit provides information about the methods required to capture each of the recommend circumstances. For a more detailed explanation of these living situations, refer to the Canadian Definition of Homelessness.  







1.1    People living in public or private spaces without consent or contract

1.2    People living in places not intended for permanent human habitation


Emergency Sheltered

2.1    Emergency overnight shelters for people who are homeless

2.2    Violence-Against-Women (VAW) shelters

2.3    Emergency shelter for people fleeing a natural disaster or destruction of accommodation due to fires, floods etc.



Provisionally Accommodated


3.1     Interim Housing for people who are homeless

3.2     People living temporarily with others, but without guarantee of continued residency or immediate prospects for accessing permanent housing.

3.3     People accessing short term, temporary rental accommodations without security of tenure

3.4     People in institutional care who lack permanent housing arrangements.

3.5     Accommodation / Reception centres for recently arrived immigrants and refugees



At-Risk of Homelessness

4.1     People at imminent risk of homelessness


4.2     Individuals and families who are precariously housed.


The Caveat

There is a strong argument for including hidden homelessness in a Youth Count, but we encourage communities to proceed thoughtfully.

A PiT Count yields two types of information:


Consider the following key messages when communicating with stakeholders: 1. The results of the Youth Count represent the minimum number of youth experiencing homelessness. 2. The Youth Count provides an accurate estimate of the number of Emergency Sheltered youth. Other forms of homelessness, including Unsheltered and Provisionally Accommodated, are undercounted. 3. Nonetheless, the process is valuable as the survey data provide a better understanding about experiences of youth and the causes of homelessness.

  1. The Count: the number of individuals experiencing homelessness in a community.
  2. Survey Data: valuable information about the experiences of individuals, including demographics, length of homelessness and barriers to housing.

It is impossible to determine the total number of youth experiencing hidden homelessness through a PiT Count. Your Youth Count will yield the minimum number of youth experiencing homelessness, with potentially a significant underestimate of the number of youth that are couch-surfing. However, by “screening in” youth that are couch-surfing you will collect valuable survey data about their experiences. 

Youth Count Organizers have a responsibility to ensure that all stakeholders – services, schools, police, the public, government,

Helpful Resource

In 2015, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and the Homelessness Partnering Strategy conducted a recorded webinar on strategies to include hidden homelessness in the HPS Coordinated Count.

media and funders – understand that the Youth Count is not a complete picture of youth homelessness – it is a snapshot. Do not allow stakeholders to represent the results of your Youth Count as the absolute number of youth experiencing homelessness in your community.

Building Alignment: Tips & Strategies

If you are aligning with the general PiT Count, it is advisable that you work with the organizers to develop a consistent definition of homelessness. Will the Youth Count and the general PiT Count enumerate the same categories of homelessness? The primary purpose of the Youth Count is to capture hidden homelessness. Will the general PiT Count also include hidden homelessness? From a practical standpoint, an aligned definition will make implementation much easier. In the absence of a common definition, the Youth Count and general PiT Count will require different screening questions and surveys. This can be logistically complicated. Refer to the Youth Count Survey for more information about survey alignment. 

The planning, implementation and communication of a Youth Count should be built on a clear and consistent definition of youth homelessness. This definition, alongside the Canadian Definition of Homelessness, will help stakeholders to understand the distinct nature of youth homelessness. The COH recommends the following definition:

“Youth homelessness” refers to the situation and experience of young people between the ages of 13 and 24 who are living independently of parents and/or caregivers, and do not have the means or ability to acquire a stable or consistent residence[1]. In addition to experiencing economic deprivation and a lack of secure hosing, young people experiencing homelessness, like all young people, are in the throes of significant developmental (social, physical, emotional and cognitive) changes.  As a result, they may not have the education, resources, experiences or personal, social and life skills needed to successfully transition to adulthood and independence. Youth homelessness is a complex social issue because as a society we have failed to provide young people and their families with the necessary and adequate supports that will enable them to move forward in their lives in a safe and planned way. Few young people choose to be homeless, and the experience is generally negative and stressful. - The Canadian Definition of Youth Homelessness (forthcoming)

Understanding the differences between youth homelessness and adult homelessness is central to the success of a Youth Count. Understanding the differences within the population of youth experiencing homelessness is equally essential. Without this understanding, Youth Count organizers run the risk of undercounting specific populations or, problematically, failing to conduct the Youth Count in a safe and respectful way. The Canadian Definition of Youth Homeless, alongside an overarching definition of the issue, recognizes that the experiences of homeless youth are not homogenous:

In defining youth homelessness one must also consider the diversity of the population in terms of age, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation and ethnicity. Much of the research on youth homelessness in Canada shows that males typically outnumber females 2:1. In addition, some ethno-racial populations tend to be over represented as a result of harassment and discrimination – most significantly, Indigenous youth, black youth and immigrants/migrants to Canada. Finally, a significant percentage of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ2S.  These differences matter because many young people are doubly or triply marginalized, not just because of their homelessness, but also due to racism, homophobia and transphobia.

– Excerpt from the Canadian Definition of Youth Homelessness (forthcoming)

Thus, as you develop your Youth Count Methodology, consider the following questions:

  1. Are there groups of youth that are likely to be overrepresented among youth experiencing homelessness in your community?
  2. Is your Youth Count methodology likely to capture the extent of these overrepresentations?
  3. Are there aspects of your methodology that would discourage certain youth from participating or even cause you to miss them all together? 

Specific Populations

Homelessness varies across communities, including youth homelessness. Communities conducting a Youth Count will need to develop the methodology based on their local context. However, as noted in the Canadian Definition of Youth Homelessness, certain youth are consistently overrepresented among youth experiencing homelessness. In our effort to end youth homelessness, it is imperative that we understand these overrepresentations so that we can respond accordingly. Accurate enumeration of youth will help us to better understand the national composition of youth homelessness, while revealing local and regional differences.

The following section provides a brief overview of strategies to consider. It is neither an exhaustive list of youth subpopulations, nor a complete list of strategies to ensure representation. 

Helpful Resource

COH Point-in-Time Count Toolkit: Fostering Indigenous Partnerships and Cultural Competency during your PiT Count

Spotlight: Indigenous Youth

While estimates vary, research suggests that Indigenous Peoples in Urban Centres are 8 times more likely than the general population to experience homelessness (Homeless Hub). Similarly, PiT Counts have affirmed that Indigenous Peoples are overrepresented across Canada. While there is less information on the percentage of Indigenous Youth that experience homelessness, it is likely that Indigenous Youth face a similar, if not greater, overrepresentation among youth experiencing homelessness. 

For more information:

“Given that Indigenous Peoples are both overrepresented and underserved – across Canada – Indigenous Peoples should be involved but more importantly, play a leadership role in any PiT Count. It is to the benefit of the entire community for Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups to work collaboratively throughout the process.” – Excerpt from the COH Point-in-Time Count Toolkit

Spotlight: LGBTQ2 Youth

LGBTQ2 Youth are overrepresented among youth experiencing homelessness, as LGBTQ youth make up 25-40% of the youth homeless population, compared to only 5-10% of the general population. LGBTQ homeless youth face distinct challenges when compared to heterosexual or cisgender homeless youth. Homophobia and transphobia result in systematic discrimination, yet shelters are not always cognizant of the challenges facing LGBTQ youth. The risks and barriers encountered by LGBTQ youth are different, and many of their needs are also unique. In addition to navigating the challenging terrain of youth homelessness, LGBTQ youth are often enduring significant social stigma and discrimination.  Consequently, LGBTQ homeless youth experience a significantly higher risk for suicide and mental health difficulties.

For more information:

Spotlight: Newcomer Youth

There is not significant research on newcomer youth homelessness, however, it is evident that newcomer homelessness is prominent, both in adult and youth populations. Newcomers are at risk of homelessness due to several factors, including poverty, discrimination, cuts to social programs, unrecognized foreign employment and educational credentials, delays in work permits and mental illness. Newcomers face specific challenges that are not always easily accommodated by service providers, due to language and/or cultural barriers. Shelter and drop-in staff require particular skills to settle newcomers, yet they often lack the necessary resources and the extra time needed to provide sufficient accommodation.

For more information:

Spotlight: Racialized Youth

Structural social inequalities experienced by racialized youth can contribute to an increased risk of homelessness. Racism and discrimination negatively impact employment opportunities, which can lead to poverty and loss of housing. Furthermore, disproportionate rates of incarceration, higher drop out rates for education, barriers to employment, and denial and discrimination in seeking government assistance all lead to homelessness for people from racialized communities.

For more information:

Do not assume that an overrepresented group will be accurately enumerated through your Youth Count. Youth, who face multiple levels of discrimination and harassment, are less likely to be connected to traditional youth-serving agencies, often out of fear and/or distrust of the system. Further, groups that are frequently targeted by police or victimized by other youth may go to great lengths to remain hidden on the street. Increased vulnerability can lead to decreased visibility, thus making marginalized groups more difficult to find, enumerate and survey.

Throughout every step of your count, you must consider how to accurately represent your entire homeless youth population. The table below provides strategies for partnership and effective engagement, two essential principles for a successful Youth Count.

Communities must decide which subpopulations to focus on – the strategies within this table are broadly applicable – but, at a minimum, the COH strongly encourages all communities to consider the unique experiences of Indigenous, LGBTQ2, newcomer and racialized youth.


Key Elements of the Count

Strategies for Partnership & Effective Engagement

Youth Count Leadership

Consider which groups are overrepresented in your youth homelessness population and ensure that your Youth Count Committee can represent the range of youth experiences in your community. 

Youth Count Partners

Effective stakeholder engagement is central to a successful Youth Count. Partners that work specifically with subpopulations of youth can provide a wealth of information on where to find youth, how best to approach them and how their experiences could affect their perception and willingness to participate in the count.

Youth Engagement

Where possible, your Youth Subcommittee should be representative of the youth experiencing homelessness in your community. Do not expect one youth to speak to the experiences of all youth from a similar background. As you form your Youth Subcommittee consider the gender, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, immigration status and family circumstance of the members.

Where to Count

Work with your Youth Count Partners and your Youth Subcommittee to understand where youth are likely to be found. Recognize that some youth may avoid popular areas (libraries, schools, shelters, drop-ins). Develop alternate strategies – such as magnet events - to engage less visible youth.

What to Ask

All youth, regardless of their backgrounds, circumstances or experiences should feel respected and safe during the Youth Count. It is especially important that the Youth Count Survey is delivered in a non-judgemental way. Work with your Youth Count partners and Youth Subcommittee to ensure that your survey questions are well designed and respectfully worded. While the Youth Count Survey should be minimally invasive, do not shy away from asking personal information such as sexual identity and immigration status. This data is crucial in an effort to end youth homelessness.

Volunteer Recruitment

Recruit volunteers from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Again, building strong partnerships with a range of Youth Count Partners will bolster this effort.  Encourage your partners to circulate information about the count through their own networks. 

Volunteer Training

Volunteer training provides an opportunity to inform the public about youth homelessness, including the distinct experiences of youth among the population. You should help volunteers to understand the importance of creating a safe and respectful environment for youth. It is particularly important that you train volunteers to deliver the Youth Count Survey using a neutral, non-judgemental approach.

Communicating Results

Once the Youth Count is complete, be prepared to share the results with a range of stakeholders – those beyond your Youth Count Partners. Think carefully about how to portray any overrepresentations within your results; help readers to understand the issues that drive youth homelessness generally but also discuss the additional barriers that some youth face.

Building Alignment: Tips & Strategies

Work with your general PiT Count organizers to identify which strategies they have in place to ensure accurate and respectful enumeration of your target populations (e.g. Indigenous Peoples, LGBTQ2). The strategies in Table 2 are not limited to Youth Counts, and general PiT Counts will benefit from many of the same strategies. In some communities, strategies may be established and highly effective. In other communities, further work may be required. 

A major methodological challenge in any PiT Count is determining who to enumerate in the count. As per the Canadian Definition of Homelessness, homelessness describes a range of circumstances and experiences. The ability to enumerate all forms of homelessness through a PiT Count is limited.

Traditionally, a PiT Count is designed to enumerate just two types of homelessness: unsheltered homelessness – individuals living in public spaces or areas unfit for human habitation -and sheltered homelessness – individuals staying temporarily in emergency shelters. 

“Homelessness describes a range of housing and shelter circumstances, with people being without any shelter at one end, and being insecurely housed at the other. That is, homelessness encompasses a range of physical living situations, organized here in a typology that includes 1) Unsheltered, or absolutely homeless and living on the streets or in places not intended for human habitation; 2) Emergency Sheltered, including those staying in overnight shelters for people who are homeless, as well as shelters for those impacted by family violence; 3) Provisionally Accommodated, referring to those whose accommodation is temporary or lacks security of tenure, and finally, 4) At Risk of Homelessness, referring to people who are not homeless, but whose current economic and/or housing situation is precarious or does not meet public health and safety standards. It should be noted that for many people homelessness is not a static state but rather a fluid experience, where one’s shelter circumstances and options may shift and change quite dramatically and with frequency.”

- Excerpt from the Canadian Definition of Homelessness