LONDON, ONT. -- An estimated 60,000 people were documented as homeless in 2016 and researchers believe that number is on the rise, but say it's data that's hard to come by.

“Homelessness research is really difficult to do because you can’t follow people over time so by definition, people who are homeless are very transient and it’s hard to keep tabs on them,” says Lucie Richard, research analyst with Lawson Health Research Institute.

Richard wanted to do something that’s never been done in Ontario. She used health records and algorithms to create a validation study surrounding the provinces homeless population.

In order to conduct this study the research team pulled from ICES data from 2007 to 2014 from across Ontario. “There are flags where you can add postal codes. So in those postal codes we can identify invalid postal codes which in their coding schemes means they are transient or homeless,” says Richard.

“Similarity if they used a postal code of a shelter you are also homeless so we looked for flags across the data bases.”

Richard says unfortunately when analyzing the data there were obvious flaws. “Many times somebody who is homeless would show up and not be flagged as homeless.”

She says that’s why this validation study is so important because it’s the most accurate picture to date of homelessness numbers in Ontario and those numbers can help researchers, medical professionals and organizations better help these individuals.

“There are a lot of investments coming down the pipe that trying to house individuals who are homeless but first you have to find them and convince them this is something you should try and engage with,” says Richard.

“Health care encounters are one of those opportunities but only if you know and identify that the individuals are homeless to begin with.”

Although the validation study is complete, Richard says the work is far from done. The next steps will be to push for a better flagging system across all health sectors.