More than 1,000 volunteers are starting the city's third homelessness census Tuesday night to get a better sense of the situation in Montreal, but some experts say the count won't provide the whole picture.

Many of those working with the homeless say there are more people on the streets now than there were four years ago when the last count was done.

"We know that there's been an impact because of the pandemic … the other thing that we know for absolute certainty because we can measure it is the price of housing in Montreal has gone up," said Sam Watts, CEO of the Welcome Hall Mission.

They're expecting the census to confirm the increase and provide some of the reasons behind it.

Volunteers will divide the island into 225 sectors — up from 163 sectors in the last survey — and head out over a few days to approach people and invite them to participate.

For the first time ever, volunteers are heading to the West Island.

"Homelessness has been increasing in every different borough of the city and we need to look not just in the centre of the town and not just in the areas that are suspect, but also in those areas that are outliers where we don't normally associate [with] homelessness," Watts said. "It exists and we need to go looking for it."

Dignity is at the heart of the survey, which is completely voluntary, he added. Volunteers need people's permission to do the survey and are instructed not to disturb people who are asleep.

James Hughes, CEO of the Old Brewery Mission, explained surveyors are hoping to learn more about the circumstances of homelessness and not just focus on numbers.

"Quantitatively, how many people. Then qualitatively, why are people homeless? What are their self-reported information that lead them to the Old Brewery Mission or one of the other facilities or — God forbid — one of the parks or under the bridges," said Hughes.

It's not a perfect system, and experts say there are some limitations to the survey, the first such survey since the spring of 2018.

The executive director of Chez Doris points out many women fleeing abusive relationships will refuse to disclose their situation or may not be able to.

"This time around, there's a lot more women with mental illnesses who have psychiatric issues, who hear voices and you can't have lucid or construtive conversations with them because their minds are disorganized," said Marina Boulos-Winton.

Watts points out the census won't account for what's known as invisible homelessness — people who do not have a home but are not necessarily out on the streets or in a shelter.


David Chapman, the head of Resilience Montreal, said his organization won't be participating in the survey at all. He said he hasn't seen much of a change in terms of resources and services offered since the previous count, even though it pointed out Indigenous people account for a disproportionate number of people on the street.

"I run a shelter here full of participants that have been through a housing first program that didn't work," Chapman said. "Now, they're back in a shelter."

According to the 2018 census, 3,149 homeless people were counted.

With that number expected to be higher, Boulos-Winton hopes the new numbers will make homelessness more of a priority for the government.

Even with its new overnight shelter, Chez Doris still turns away an average of nine women per night.