CMHC: Step-by-Step Guide to Estimating Rural Homelessness

Originally published on Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

The Step-by-Step Guide to Estimating Rural Homelessness was awarded a CMHC Gold Roof Award for Knowledge to Action.

It can be challenging to collect tangible data on rural homelessness in Canada. Traditional point-in-time counting methods that are used in urban locations don’t work in rural ones. This means that rural homelessness has largely been a hidden problem.

The Step-by-Step Guide to Estimating Rural Homelessness helps rural and remote communities collect data on homelessness. Created by the Alberta Rural Development Network, it’s a flexible tool that is cost-effective and easy to use. Data collected helps communities identify service need and acquire funding, and it can be shared through the Rural Homelessness Database.

Key Findings/Key Goals

  1. The guide was used in 2018 to perform the largest ever collaborative count of homelessness in rural Canada.
  2. Data generated by the guide inspired a $50 million commitment by Cenovus Energy for housing in 6 Indigenous communities.
  3. Nearly 3,000 people who lack secure housing have been identified across 20 small rural communities.

Homelessness in Canada is usually believed to be an urban problem, but it also exists in rural and remote areas. Methods for estimating homelessness and housing insecurity in urban centres, however, are not suited to rural and remote ones. Accurate data can’t always easily be collected, meaning that rural and remote communities can’t assess service need or receive funding.

The Step-by-Step Guide to Estimating Rural Homelessness provides a tool for rural and remote communities to estimate homelessness. Created by the Alberta Rural Development Network (ARDN), it uses simultaneous data collection at different points in a community. This is more suited for rural and remote settings than the point-in-time method used in urban areas. The result is more accurate data to guide planning and resource allocation.

Flexible and cost-efficient

People experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity in rural areas traditionally have been underserved and overlooked. When communities have data on this group, they can seek funding to help address the problem and plan accordingly. This guide helps collect that data accurately.

The guide is particularly useful for communities with limited resources, because it is flexible and cost-efficient. Communities can tailor it to their situations or to gather data on specific issues. This means that communities that couldn’t perform a homelessness estimate before can now conduct one that is affordable and accurate.

The Rural Homelessness Database

Communities can choose to share their data with the Rural Homelessness Database. This makes the data they have collected available to other communities. The database itself is easy to use and free, avoiding complicated interfaces or paywalls. This is significant, because data on rural homelessness has not always been shared in the past.

A key innovation of the guide that helps with data sharing is the use of a Unique Identifier Code (UIC). This 9-character code prevents clients from being counted more than once, even if they visit different communities. It also maintains their complete privacy and anonymity.

The largest count of homelessness in rural Canada

In 2018, the guide was used to perform the largest ever collaborative count of homelessness in rural Canada. It is now being used in the 2020 Rural Housing and Service Needs Estimation Project. This project covers 27 communities in Alberta, some of which participated in the 2018 estimation.

ARDN used the Estimating Rural Homelessness guide to identify 92 people in Conklin, Alberta, who were housing insecure in 2019. These findings helped inspire Cenovus Energy to commit $50 million over 5 years to improve housing in 6 Indigenous communities.

The guide has so far identified more than 3,000 people who lack secure housing across 20 small rural communities.

Extensive review and consultation

The guide was produced through extensive review and consultation. Published studies and reports were reviewed, as were homelessness counts in other rural areas. A group of experts, communities and service providers provided feedback and input during the guide’s creation. A lawyer and Alberta’s Freedom of Information and Privacy specialist also reviewed the guide. ARDN plans to update the guide in two years based on what has been learned.

A secure, online version of the guide is being developed. This will help communities use it during a pandemic environment. ARDN is also exploring ways of having data from the guide added automatically to the Data Homelessness Database.

ARDN is working to share the guide across Canada. Its flexibility means that communities in other areas can adapt it, and it is provided in English and French. A second guide is also planned to highlight what to do with the data collected by communities.

Project Team: The Alberta Rural Development Network (ARDN)

Location: Edmonton, Alberta
Project Collaborators / Partners:
  • Zain Abedin, Director of Community Development
  • Julia Juco, Communications Manager
  • Abebe Essayas, Research Analyst
  • Scott Travis, Director of Research and Programs
  • Jonn Kmech, Program Manager, Homelessness Initiatives
Get More Information:

Contact CMHC at for more information on this award-winning project.

Step-by-Step Guide to Estimating Homelessness

The Step-by-Step Guide to Estimating Homelessness in Rural Communities was first published in 2017. It is a cost-efficient and reliable method for rural communities to obtain or improve local data on homelessness. The guide is available in English and French and is applicable in rural and remote communities across Canada.


Julia Juco