What to Ask

Methodology

There are a number of factors to consider when scheduling a PiT Count. Unlike communities in the United States, communities across Canada conduct PiT Counts at various times throughout the year. Further, the duration of counts – though usually not exceeding 24 hours – is different across communities. Finally, some communities conduct PiT Counts during the day, some during the night, and others a combination of both.  There are benefits and challenges in each scenario. While there is neither a right nor a wrong approach, the timing of the count can affect the type of data that is collected.

The following table provides a brief overview of the different considerations that Canadian communities have used in determining when to conduct their PiT Counts. 

TABLE 4. THE CANADIAN EXPERIENCE

Season

Proponents of a winter count suggest that it is easier to enumerate homelessness when there are fewer rough sleepers and more individuals in the shelter. Others argue that hidden homelessness increases in the winter months, and thus goes undetected by winter counts. Conversely, many communities in the summer months face a migration influx, which may temporarily increase unsheltered homelessness numbers.

Time of Month

Many communities conduct counts in the middle of the month. Individuals who receive social assistance payments are more likely to reside in hotels or other temporary accommodation at the beginning and the end of the month. Thus, counts occurring then may underestimate the extent of homelessness.

Day of Week

PiT Counts are often held in the middle of the week. Volunteers conducting the unsheltered portion of the count are required to approach every person they see. This is made more difficult by increased foot traffic on the weekend. If you are conducting a service count, the count should be scheduled on a day that most services are open.

Duration of Count

In Canada, PiT Counts rarely exceed 24 hours. Some communities conduct counts in as little as a few hours, others conduct counts that span over a 24-hour period. Generally, the longer the count, the more is required to de-duplicate the data.

Day or Night

Communities that conduct counts during the night often do so to reduce the risk of double counting. After the shelters close, there is less movement between the streets and the shelters, thus reducing the risk of double counting. Conversely, communities that conduct counts in the daytime are more likely to find individuals that are neither unsheltered nor sheltered, but instead are couch-surfing. Some communities, such as Winnipeg, use a combination of both methods. Communities that incorporate service counts into the PiT Count will almost always do so during the day, when most services tend to be open.

Alignment

Some communities determine the timing of their counts through alignment with other communities, either regionally or nationally. For instance, the 2014 Alberta Point-in-Time Count was conducted mostly in one evening, in mid-October. Communities participating in the Homelessness Partnering Strategy Coordinated Count will conduct counts from January to April. PiT Counts that are conducted during a fixed time period produce data that is more easily comparable.  

Local Factors

Local events and circumstances can also dictate when a count is scheduled. For example, it would be impractical to schedule a PiT Count during the Calgary Stampede, on the night of a mayoral election, during a university frosh week or overlapping a planned protest.

A Focus on Youth

The considerations listed in Table 3 are as applicable to Youth Counts as they are to general PiT Counts. However, there are further considerations specific to youth that may affect the timing of your Youth Count. 

Day vs. Night

Hint!

A Youth Count contains 5 enumeration methods: the sheltered count, the unsheltered count, the service count, magnet events and the public systems count. Each method targets a slightly different living situation. Communities must decide which methods to use. Doing so will help you to determine when and how to schedule the count.

The timing of your count will be dependent on where and how you choose to enumerate Youth. Traditional PiT Counts, with only sheltered and unsheltered components, can be conducted easily at night. However, the COH recommends that communities implementing Youth Counts incorporate service counts and/or magnet events into their methodologies. Practically speaking, service counts are better done in the daytime, when services are open, and magnet events are better conducted in the afternoon or evening – when youth are awake and willing to attend. Of course, the sheltered count is best conducted at night, when youth have arrived for the evening. 

Season

Schools and school boards are important assets in your count. As a result, you should avoid scheduling the count during the summer months. As the Youth Count! Process study identified, schools can play an important role in promoting the count and encouraging youth to attend magnet events. Teachers and staff can also volunteer to conduct surveys.

Hint!

The timing of your Youth Count will affect the number of youth you count. In turn, this affects the comparability of local Youth Count data. We recommend that communities conducting Youth Counts strive to align, wherever possible. The COH Workspace on Homelessness is a free, online forum where communities can discuss issues on homelessness, including Youth Count methodologies.

Day of Week

Ask your stakeholders, including your Youth Subcommittee, to identify whether there are any days that youth are more or less likely to use services. Further, is there a day of the week that Youth would be more inclined to attend a magnet event?

Duration of the Count

As noted, PiT Counts typically span a time period of no greater than 24 hours. However in the US, some communities conduct Youth Counts over several days. Following the initial count, youth-specific services survey youth and ask them to indicate where they slept on a specific date (the first night of the count). Though the data collection lasts several days, the intent is to ascertain housing status on specific night or, a point-in-time. In many smaller Canadian communities, a longer time frame is likely unnecessary, but there may be local justifications for conducting a longer Youth Count. 

For more information

For more information on when to conduct a PiT Count, refer to the COH PiT Count Toolkit: When to Conduct a Count.

Building Alignment: Tips & Strategies

The timing of the Youth Count may be dictated by the timing of the general PiT Count. Work with general PiT Count organizers to identify a time that satisfies the requirements of both counts. To ensure the greatest level of accuracy, you should measure the extent of homelessness at a single point in time. For example, if the general PiT count seeks to measure homelessness on March 23rd, so too should the Youth Count. Elements of the count - the shelter count, magnet events, service counts – can be conducted at different times, provided that all participants are asked where they are sleeping on a single date. Keep in mind, the longer and more complex the count, the greater likelihood for duplication. Both the Youth Count and general PiT Count should implement a standardized unique identifier system.

One of the most important methodological decisions in a PiT Count is where to conduct the count. Traditionally, a PiT Count – at minimum – involves an unsheltered and sheltered count. However, communities across Canada and the US have begun to expand the scope of their counts to include service counts and, sometimes, magnet events. These complementary approaches are especially useful to capture hidden homelessness.

A Focus on Youth

Generally, unsheltered and sheltered counts are not sufficient to capture the extent of youth homelessness in a community. Youth are more likely to experience homelessness out of sight, and as noted, are more likely to couch-surf. As such, a Youth Count requires a mix of strategies. This Toolkit focuses on five Youth Count components: the street count, the shelter count, the service count, magnet events and the public systems count. Use the Canadian Definition of Youth Homelessness and the Homelessness Typology to determine which components your Youth Count will include.

TABLE 5. YOUTH COUNT COMPONENTS

Component

Description

Street Count

A street count takes place generally over a few hours, often in the evening, overnight or early in the morning. Volunteers walk the entire community or to designated “hot spots” to enumerate and survey individuals that are experiencing homelessness. The purpose of the street count is to enumerate unsheltered homelessness.

Shelter & Transitional Count

A shelter count takes place at night, when youth have arrived at the shelter for the evening. Volunteers and/or shelter staff deliver the Youth Count survey to willing participants. In addition to the surveys, shelter staff provide administrative data that indicates the number of youth staying in the shelter on the night of the count. The transitional count happens much the same way. The purpose of the shelter count is to enumerate sheltered homelessness. The transitional count is intended to capture youth in provisional accommodation.

Service Count

A service count generally takes place in the day, or when services are open. A service count is not limited to homelessness-serving agencies. Service counts often take place in food banks, at bottle depots, in libraries and at drop-in centres. Volunteers and/or service staff deliver the Youth Count surveys. The service count can capture many different forms of homelessness.

Magnet Events

The purpose of the magnet event is to survey youth who may not otherwise be counted, such as youth in remote areas or those who are couch-surfing. They usually have some combination of food, resources, entertainment and service referrals. At the magnet event, youth can choose to complete a Youth Count survey with a volunteer. Magnet events occur at any time during the Youth Count. For more information about magnet events, refer to the Youth Count! Process Study.

Public Systems Counts

Public systems counts are conducted in hospitals, detox centres and juvenile correctional facilities.  Facilities willing to participate provide organizers with the number of people in their facility, on the night of the count, that are without a fixed address. Some facilities may be willing to conduct Youth Count surveys, but it is more common to simply receive “a count” rather than survey data. The purpose of the public systems count is to enumerate youth who are provisionally accommodated (see Canadian Definition of Homelessness 3.3)

The following section provides step-by-step instructions on how to plan for each of the five Youth Count components. Decide which components are priorities in your Youth Count. Remember, each component captures a different type of youth homelessness. The Youth Count Coordinator, the Lead Agency and the Youth Count Committee should first agree on the scope of the count, then determine how best to measure it.

Street Count

Step 1: Determine Coverage Strategy

Hint!

Do not assume that there are no youth in your community sleeping outside or in abandoned buildings, parks or tents. All Youth Counts should incorporate an unsheltered component.

There are three different ways to conduct a street count. First, you can send surveyors to known locations where youth congregate or sleep. Alternatively, you can divide your entire community into sectors and have surveyors deployed to each one. Finally, you can do a combination of both. You can find an explanation of each method in the COH PiT Count Toolkit: Identifying Locations.

For the purposes of the Youth Count, a known locations method is likely the most appropriate. A full coverage option requires significant resources and youth could still be missed.

Step 2: Identify Known Locations

The success of your street count relies on strong partnership and consultation with youth-serving agencies, stakeholders and most importantly, youth that are or have experienced homelessness. Your Youth Count Committee, especially the Youth Subcommittee, will provide you with a wealth of information on where youth can be found sleeping. Take a map of your community to various stakeholders and ask them to identify priority areas. Note: there may be some locations where it is best to send outreach workers rather than volunteers (e.g. rural encampments). For more information on mapping, including full coverage strategies, refer to the COH PiT Count Toolkit.

To identify known locations, you must:

  • Engage outreach workers, police, EMS, bylaw and parks officers, businesses and others to help you identify 'hot spots' for the night of the count;
  • Undertake walkabouts in advance of a count date to identify and confirm known locations;
  • Consult homeless persons to get a sense of where to canvass and how to approach potential interviewees, especially in camps.

– Excerpt from the COH PiT Count Toolkit

Shelter & Transitional Count

Step 1: Take Inventory

To conduct shelter and transitional counts, you need a list of all the emergency shelters and transitional housing programs in your community. It is important to include youth and adult-serving shelters, as the definition of youth is up to age 24. For each program, note the bed capacity. You will need this information to determine how many volunteers to recruit.

Helpful Resource

Conducting a Shelter Count (Infographic & Tip Sheet), developed by HPS and COH.

Step 2: Choose a Data Collection Method

Similar to the street count, there are multiple ways to conduct the shelter and transitional counts. Remember, a Youth Count yields two types of information, a count and survey data. The count is the number of youth experiencing homelessness on the selected night. The survey provides data on the experiences of youth that are homeless when surveyed. At a minimum, shelters you identified in your inventory need to provide you with the number of youth that stayed in their shelter and/or transitional housing on the night of the count. But, ideally, you will also conduct Youth Count surveys with those staying in youth-dedicated shelters. Refer to the COH PiT Count Toolkit: Emergency Shelter & Transitional Bed Counts for a full explanation of each of the data collection options.

Other tips:

  • Provide shelters, especially those serving adults, with your definition of youth homelessness, including the target age range. The shelter occupancy

    Helpful Resource

    Download a guide on developing a Shelter & Transitional Housing Enumeration Form.

    on the night of the count should include only those that fall within your target age range – the COH recommends up to age 24.

  • Some youth-serving shelters have a number of dedicated transitional beds. Agencies should indicate the emergency bed occupancy and the transitional bed occupancy separately. You will require this information when you delineate the data in your Youth Count report. Refer to the sample Shelter & Transitional Housing Enumeration Form in the COH PiT Count Toolkit.
  • Work with the Violence Against Women shelters (VAW) to determine the number of youth they had staying on the night of the count. For safety reasons, it is usually undesirable to send survey volunteers to the shelter. Instead, staff can administer the Youth Count survey, or simply send a count of the number of clients 24 and under.

Service Count

Step 1: Take Inventory

In consultation with your stakeholders, especially youth, create a list of services where youth – especially those experiencing homelessness – are likely to be. Put particular emphasis on services for Indigenous youth and LGBTQ2 youth. Unlike the shelter count inventory, the service list does not need to be exhaustive. Instead, pick services where you will encounter a high density of youth. Drop-in programs, food programs, malls and libraries can be popular locations.

Step 2: Work with Service Providers

Not all service providers will be willing to participate. We recommend that you convene an information session and invite target service providers to learn about the

Hint!

Adding a service count or magnet event will increase the likelihood of duplication. Due to the complexity of the Youth Count methodology, we recommend that all communities use unique identifiers.

Youth Count and what it entails. Find out from service providers when they have the highest volume of youth in attendance. This will help you to determine when to schedule the service count (within your defined Youth Count period). Similar to the shelter count, service providers can administer the Youth Count surveys themselves – over a set time period – or you can provide volunteers. The first option is most practical for those communities that are conducting a Youth Count over multiple days. Note: administrative data from service providers is not necessary.

Magnet Events

Step 1: Identify a Location

 Choose a service location to host the Youth Count magnet event. It is best to avoid dedicated homeless- serving agencies. Instead, opt for general youth-serving agencies. Youth drop-in centres are good venues, though not all communities have these. In some communities, it may be desirable and feasible to conduct multiple concurrent magnet events.

Step 2: Plan the Event

Helpful Resource

Refer to the Youth Count! Process Study to learn more about youth magnet events in other communities.

The magnet event should attract youth from a range of housing circumstances. To encourage attendance, the event must be attractive and engaging to youth. Movies, food, BBQs, activities, giveaways and referrals to services are good options. We recommend working closely with your Youth Subcommittee to plan, execute and promote the magnet events. 

Hint!

Magnet events should not be branded as events for homeless youth. In fact, the key benefit of a magnet event is to attract youth that are couch-surfing – many of whom do not consider themselves homeless. Instead, the magnet event should be presented as fun and inviting.

Step 3: Promote

Dedicate adequate time and resources to promoting your magnet event(s). Promote the event to as many agencies as possible. Provide services, schools and youth with information cards to circulate. The cards should contain details about the event and information about the Youth Count. You should state that everyone is welcome and that participation in the Youth Count survey is not mandatory. Engage your Youth Subcommittee to develop a social media strategy to promote the event. Ask your Youth Subcommittee to encourage their peers to attend, especially those who do not utilize youth services. 

Public Systems Count

Step 1: Take Inventory

First, develop a list of public systems that you want to include in your Youth Count. Hospitals, treatment centres, juvenile correctional facilities and holding cells are good options. Next, identify key contacts in each of these systems. In many instances, it may take considerable time and planning to make the required connections. Where possible, leverage the relationships of your Youth Count Committee and other stakeholders. 

Step 2: Determine Data Requirements

For those facilities or systems that are willing to participate, work with them to determine the best approach to collect data on youth without a fixed address. As a minimum, you will need the number of youth without a fixed address on the night of the count. In some cases, you may obtain additional information, such as age and gender. For more information on public systems refer to the COH PiT Count Toolkit: Adding to the Count.

Building Alignment: Tips & Strategies

There are a number of ways to conduct a combined general PiT Count and a Youth Count. The approach that you take will depend on the existing PiT Count methodology in your community. In communities with a traditional count methodology, comprised of a street count and a shelter count, Youth Count organizers may increase the representation of youth by organizing additional count components, such as service counts and magnet events (example 1). Alternatively, if the general PiT Count methodology includes a service count component, Youth Count organizers may choose to add youth-specific service counts and magnet events over a longer time period (example 2). Work with the PiT Count organizers in your community to develop a methodology that meets the requirements of both counts.

COMBINING A GENERAL PIT COUNT AND A YOUTH COUNT

2 examples of combining a general PiT Count and a Youth Count.

A PiT Count Survey provides important and necessary data to give context for the count. While it is important to know the number of people experiencing homelessness in community, it is equally important to understand the circumstances of those experiencing homelessness.  The survey is not designed to be a comprehensive research instrument; instead, it helps communities to identify broad trends and patterns. 

A PiT Count Survey Form has three distinct components:

  • The opening script, used by volunteers to obtain consent from potential participants;
  • The screening questions, used by volunteers to determine who is eligible to participate in the survey;
  • The survey questions, asked by volunteers to gather data on individuals who are experiencing homelessness.

– Excerpt from the COH PiT Count Toolkit

A Focus on Youth

There is a growing recognition of the benefits of standardizing PiT Count surveys across communities. With common indicators, we can paint a clearer and more accurate picture of homelessness regionally and importantly, across Canada. As a result, the COH recommends that communities conducting discrete Youth Counts, align with other PiT Count survey instruments, as much as possible. The Youth Count survey is primarily based on the survey instruments developed by the Homelessness Partnering Strategy and those found within the COH PiT Count Toolkit.

The Opening Script

The script provides volunteers with consistent language to introduce themselves, explain the purpose of the count and ask for participation. Volunteers should use the script to initiate contact with every person they encounter on the street. Thus, the script must be clear, concise and easily repeated. The script is equally essential in the shelter.

– Excerpt from the COH PiT Count Toolkit

In a Youth Count, the script serves the same purpose as described above. Youth, before consenting to the survey, must understand what the survey is about, why the information is being collected and that if they choose to participate, they can stop at anytime. 

Youth Count Sample Script

My name is [first name] and I am a Youth Count volunteer.

We are conducting a short youth housing survey in [community name]. The data collected will remain confidential and will be used to determine how we can improve housing options for youth in [community name]/

May I ask you a few questions to determine if you’re eligible to participate? You can stop at anytime. 

The Screening Questions

The screening questions ensure that only those eligible, based on your definition of youth homelessness, participate in the Youth Count survey. Unlike the traditional PiT Count methodology, the Youth Count screening questions are designed to screen-in youth who are couchsurfing. If your community is interested in capturing other forms of homelessness, such as those at risk of homelessness, you will need to modify the screening questions accordingly.

A.   Have you answered questions with a person with [identifier: button, lanyard, clipboard, sticker]? 

[Yes: Thank and tally]                      [No: Go to B]

B.   Are you 24 or younger?

[Yes: Go to C]                                 [No: Thank and tally]

C.   Do you have a permanent residence you can return to tonight?

[Yes]                                              [No]

D.   Where are you staying tonight?

*if conducting the count over more than 24 hours, insert date

  • Decline to answer
  • Own apartment/house
  • Motel/hotel
  • Hospital, jail, prison, remand centre
  • Emergency shelter, domestic violence shelter
  • Transitional housing
  • Public space (e.g. sidewalks, squares, parks, forests, bus shelter)
  • Vehicle
  • Makeshift shelter tent or shack
  • Abandoned/vacant building
  • Other unsheltered location
  • Don’t know (likely homeless)
  • Someone else’s place (friend or family)

Thank and tally

Go to F

Go to E


E.   Are you staying there because you are without a place of your own?

[Yes: Go to F]                                   [No: Thank and tally]

F.   You are eligible to participate in the survey. Would you like to continue? Your information will be kept confidential and you can stop at any time.

[Yes: Begin survey]                           [No: Thank and tally] 

The Survey

In Canada, there has been a significant effort to align PiT Count surveys across communities. By asking the same questions, in a consistent way, we can compare results across communities and build provincial, territorial and national pictures of homelessness. We encourage, wherever possible, that Youth Count surveys utilize existing questions created by the Homelessness Partnering Strategy and the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.

In an effort to build alignment, the COH has created a Youth Count survey. We strongly recommend that all communities use this survey as the basis for their Youth Count. It is deliberately concise; we encourage you to add additional questions that satisfy your local requirements.

Download the customizable Youth Count survey.

For survey design tips and strategies, refer to COH PiT Count Toolkit: Designing your Survey Form Checklist.

Unique Identifiers

The risk of duplication, or double counting, is more likely in a Youth Count than it is in a traditional PiT Count. We strongly recommend that all Youth Counts assign unique ID’s to youth participants. Unique ID’s will help to facilitate the data cleaning process. There are numerous ways to create unique IDs. The COH recommends the first name initial, last name initial, month of birth and date of birth. For example: John Smith, born on December 20th would provide the following information: JS1220

Regardless of your approach, do not ask youth to provide their name. Assure youth that the Youth Count survey will be kept confidential and all data will be aggregated. At no point in time shouldthe unique identifiers be shared. 

For more information on unique identifiers, refer to the Youth Count! Process Study.  

The Tally Sheet

Tally Sheets - used on the street and in the shelter - indicate how many people have been approached, the number of individuals surveyed and those that may be eligible to participate but are unable or unwilling to do so.

At the top of each Tally Sheet, volunteers should indicate their search area/location, the time of their shift, their name and their contact number. This allows you to follow-up with a volunteer if you discover discrepancies or missing data at the time of input.

– Excerpt from the COH PiT Count Toolkit

Tally sheets are only required in the unsheltered count and magnet events. Your tally sheet should provide space for volunteers to indicate:

  • The number of individuals that decline to participate
  • The number of individuals that are ineligible to participate due to housing status, age or previous participation
  • Youth that indicate they are homeless but are under the age of 15

Download a sample Youth Count tally sheet.

Building Alignment: Tips & Strategies

We strongly recommend that you work with the general PiT Count organizers to develop a single, coordinated survey. Using separate surveys is logistically complicated and may be difficult for volunteers to implement accurately, even with effective training. Ensure that the survey covers key questions pertaining to youth homelessness including: sexual orientation, Indigenous identity, educational attainment, experience in foster care and barriers to housing. As recommended in the COH PiT Count Toolkit and the Youth Count Toolkit, seek input from individuals with lived experience, including youth, on survey design.

Youth Counts are relatively new in Canada. Nonetheless, communities that have conducted youth counts, or youth-focused PiT Counts, have found initial success in engaging schools in the effort. School engagement may offer a partial solution to the difficultly of counting youth who services and cannot be found through the unsheltered count.

The Youth Count methodology is designed to reach youth who may otherwise be missed through a traditional PiT Count methodology. Magnet events, service counts and meaningful youth consultation improve the likelihood that youth experiencing homelessness will be counted and surveyed. However, no count is perfect. It is inevitable that the Youth Count will miss eligible youth, particularly those who are couch surfing and/or disconnected from services.

School engagement, in the context of the Youth Count, is worth exploring further. Unquestionably, schools and school boards across the country have valuable information and insight to share. Above all, they have a captive audience – youth available to participate in the Youth Count Survey.

However, there are challenges to collecting data in and from schools. Provincial regulations, school board policies and sometimes, an unwillingness to acknowledge youth homelessness as an issue, can create barriers to engagement.

There are a number of ways to leverage school expertise in the Youth Count, each varying in complexity. All Youth Counts should strive to involve schools in the first count, even in a limited way. Early, positive engagement will set the foundation for further involvement in future years.

For more information on school engagement, refer to the Youth Count! Process Study

TABLE 6. SCHOOL ENGAGEMENT

Youth Count Leadership

Ensure that your local school system is represented on your Youth Count Committee. Wherever possible, engage school boards in your area. If there is sufficient interest, consider creating a subcommittee or focus group with teachers and guidance counsellors. They can share useful information about where to locate youth and how best to survey them. 

Volunteer Recruitment

Ask your local school board to circulate your call for volunteers. Teachers and other school staff will bring helpful expertise and knowledge as survey volunteers.

Count Promotion

Work with schools to promote the count, especially magnet events. Note: some schools may be unwilling to promote an outside event. Begin discussions early in the planning process.

School Administrative Data

Schools may have a record of the number of youth that are without a fixed address, even an informal list or count. This information can be used to supplement the Youth Count data that is collected. Keep in mind, if schools are unable to provide you with anonymised, individual level data, you will be unable aggregate the Youth Count data collected elsewhere (magnet events, shelter count, street count) with the school-level data. Nonetheless, this information provides useful context for the Youth Count report.

Partial Survey

Some school boards conduct annual surveys with their students. These surveys cover a range of topics including family circumstance, health, school experience, bullying and more. In some instances, it may be possible to “piggyback” on an existing survey. That is, to add questions pertaining to housing stability and experiences of homelessness. This data would indicate the rate of homelessness among school-involved youth. If conducted at the same time as the Youth Count, admittedly a significant undertaking, the results could be aggregated with other Youth Count data, provided there was a mechanism to deduplicate the data.

Full Youth Count Survey

Conducting the full Youth Count survey with school-involved youth yields the highest quality data. However, to-do so can be logistically challenging. In many cases, students require parental consent to participate in outside research. Further, youth who participate in the full survey would be outing themselves, perhaps unwillingly, as homeless. While there are a number of considerations, this level of coordination and school engagement would yield comprehensive Youth Count data. 

The Youth Count Toolkit was generously funded and supported by the Laidlaw Foundation.

Laidlaw Foundation logo.