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Fake ‘street’ people to help survey

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TORONTO—Spending up to $10,000 to hire 100 “fake” homeless people for an evening might sound to some like an odd use of tax dollars in a recession.

But Toronto city officials say the “decoys” are needed to ensure the statistical validity of the city’s second-ever survey of its homeless population next month, and point out that a similar technique has been used in New York.

Between 50 and 100 people, including students, actors, former homeless people, and social workers, will be given $100 pre-paid Visa cards as honorariums to pose as homeless on the city’s streets as volunteer surveyors try to count Toronto’s real homeless population on April 15.

The bill is a small chunk of the survey’s $150,000 cost, which is completely funded by the federal government.

The decoy technique, also used in Toronto’s first “street needs assessment” in 2006, is meant to ensure volunteers are approaching everyone they see, not just those who look homeless.

The percentage of decoys missed can be used to estimate the number of homeless the survey fails to capture.

Decoys or not, some advocates for the homeless have long opposed the survey.

Michael Shapcott, of the Wellesley Institute think-tank, dismisses Toronto’s homeless count as imprecise “junk science” that misses the “hidden homeless” taken in by friends and family.

He said the money could be put to better use.

“Why don’t you actually have real homeless people pretend to be fake homeless people and give them 100 bucks?” he said. “Wouldn’t that be a good thing?”

But Coun. Janet Davis, chairwoman of the city council committee that oversees efforts to combat homelessness, defends the survey.

“It’s very important because it gives us a snapshot of who is homeless, in shelters and on the streets, and what their needs are,” she said.

She added the 2006 results, which showed 5,052 homeless people, revealed they rely heavily on drop-in centres, resulting in a budget increase in that area.

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