Experts say homelessness in N.L. is 'dramatically' underreported. Here's why, and how it's tracked

Tracking homelessness across Newfoundland and Labrador is a patchwork effort, say experts, as there isn't one system being used to tally rates.

Tracking methods have an urban bias, says homelessness researcher

Colourful homes sit on top of rocks and grass.
Brenna Jarrar, the director of housing with the Nunatsiavut Housing Commission, says one in six homes in Nunatsiavut are overcrowded. (Brenna Jarrar/Nunatsiavut Housing Commission)

Homelessness rates in Newfoundland and Labrador aren't accurately tracked, according to several experts, who say current levels are far higher than what the numbers reveal on paper.

Brenna Jarrar, the Nunatsiavut Housing Commission's director of housing, says one in six homes in Nunatsiavut are severely overcrowded — a rate that's five to six times the national average.

While the official figure is alarming, she says, it actually only scratches the surface — a concern echoed by housing advocacy workers.

"I think generally homelessness across the country, and especially in rural areas nationally, is dramatically underreported," Jarrar told CBC News.

"It's cliché but [it's] just the tip of the iceberg. We know that even the numbers that we have are most likely not accurate."

Homelessness rates across the country are underreported, says Cheryl Forchuk, a homelessness expert with the Lawson Health Research Institute in London, Ont. It's challenging, she said, to get an accurate number of how many people are homeless in a given area because current tracking methods have an "urban bias."

Cheryl Forchuk stands in front of the camera.
Cheryl Forchuck is a homelessness researcher with the Lawson Health Research Institute in London, Ont. She says tracking homelessness is challenging for many reasons, including an urban bias in current methods. (Tony Davis/CBC)

Most areas across the country, she said, track homelessness using "shelter" or "homeless" data, which is the number of people availing of homeless shelters or who have used some type of homelessness service.

Forchuk says this method discounts many living in rural areas, as they may not have the same access to shelters or services as those living in large, urban centres.

She also says a lot of homelessness is hidden, with many people couch surfing or living in overcrowded housing.

"We often don't have a really good baseline because it's so hard to have accurate numbers of how many people are actually homeless," said Forchuk.

"Not everyone who's homeless wants to be found."

Urban bias

Tracking homelessness in Newfoundland and Labrador is a patchwork effort, with numerous organizations across the province working to get a snapshot of what homelessness looks like in a given region. There isn't one central system or method used by all organizations, although some do share resources and data.

For instance, Katie VanKoughnet, a manager at End Homelessness St. John's, says the organization oversees a database that is partly populated by its partner organizations in the community, such as the Gathering Place and Iris Kirby House. 

She says End Homelessness St. John's also conducts a point-in-time count — a snapshot of what homelessness looks like on a given day. She says the latest point-in-time count conducted on Nov. 24 revealed at least 183 people experiencing homelessness on that day.

Based on available data, which includes point-in-time counts, VanKoughnet said the "conservative minimum estimate" of the total number of people experiencing homelessness in the city in 2022 was 900 people.

The actual number is likely higher, says VanKoughnet, but it's difficult to determine an exact figure for numerous reasons. For instance, she says, individual situations are constantly changing, and many people in the city may not be able to access shelters or other services.

A woman smiles in front of hanging Christmas lights.
Katie VanKoughnet of End Homelessness St. John’s says at least 900 people experienced homelessness in St. John's last year. (Submitted by Katie VanKoughnet)

"Much of that increase in numbers is actually because we're getting better at finding people who should have been counted the whole time," said VanKoughnet.

"Knowing that people exist is the first step to getting them connected to resources."

Kim Beers, the chairperson of the Housing and Homelessness Hub in Gander, says housing organizations are often made aware of homelessness rates through community groups or word of mouth. She says there isn't a formal way of tracking individuals who don't access housing or shelter services.

"There's no one system right now that we all use," said Beers, "but we're doing the best that we can to connect with each other."

Race against time

Jarrar says the Nunatsiavut government is one of the few entities trying to track and understand homelessness in Nunatsiavut and Happy Valley-Goose Bay, and that it staffs and runs all of the homeless shelters in both areas.

She says they're mandated to focus on the land claims area — which includes Nain, Hopedale, Makkovik, Postville and Rigolet — but that Nunatsiavut beneficiaries live across the province and the country, making tracking efforts a difficult undertaking.

The Nunatsiavut Housing Commission has completed two housing needs assessments in the last 10 years, where community liaison officers go door to door, trying to map the community as best they can, says Jarrar.

Coloured sleeping bags and blankets are in the middle of green trees.
A makeshift camp is shown in the wooded trails surrounding Happy Valley-Goose Bay in 2022. The camp was one of dozens in the wooded trails. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

She says trying to collect data is difficult due to human resource challenges, as well as the fact that the homeless population isn't relegated to community shelters — homelessness often comes in the form of overcrowded or inadequate housing, for instance.

For rural areas like northern Labrador, Jarrar and Forchuk say a vicious cycle emerges: because it's hard to gather accurate homeless data, it's difficult to receive the proper funding and resources necessary to address homelessness. And because there are few homelessness resources, it's hard to gather data.

"Homelessness rates are astronomically higher than other parts of Canada, and there's almost no attention paid to it," said Jarrar.

When asked whether there was a co-ordinated effort to track homelessness in the province, the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corporation said in an emailed statement it tracks the number of individuals provincewide who use an emergency shelter bed under the provincial emergency shelter program.

On June 27 this year, 317 people were using a shelter under the program, according to the statement.

Jarrar says the Nunatsiavut government isn't part of any provincial strategy or roundtable to address homelessness. She says communities across the province need assistance, and because of the hidden nature of homelessness, raising awareness is the first step to receiving help.

"It's a race against time," said Jarrar. "I think it's a problem where you're often screaming for attention and there's not really enough to go around when there's such a crisis everywhere."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Jessica Singer is a journalist with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador. She has worked in CBC newsrooms in Toronto and St. John's. You can reach her at

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for the top stories in Newfoundland and Labrador.


The next issue of CBC Newfoundland and Labrador newsletter will soon be in your inbox.

Discover all CBC newsletters in the Subscription Centre.opens new window

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Google Terms of Service apply.