Objectives To validate case ascertainment algorithms for identifying individuals experiencing homelessness in health administrative databases between 2007 and 2014; and to estimate homelessness prevalence trends in Ontario, Canada, between 2007 and 2016.
Design A population-based retrospective validation study.
Setting Ontario, Canada, from 2007 to 2014 (validation) and 2007 to 2016 (estimation).
Participants Our reference standard was the known housing status of a longitudinal cohort of housed (n=137 200) and homeless or vulnerably housed (n=686) individuals. Two reference standard definitions of homelessness were adopted: the housing episode and the annual housing experience (any homelessness within a calendar year).
Main outcome measures Sensitivity, specificity, positive and negative predictive values and positive likelihood ratios of 30 case ascertainment algorithms for detecting homelessness using up to eight health service databases.
Results Sensitivity estimates ranged from 10.8% to 28.9% (housing episode definition) and 18.5% to 35.6% (annual housing experience definition). Specificities exceeded 99% and positive likelihood ratios were high using both definitions. The most optimal algorithm estimates that 59 974 (95% CI 55 231 to 65 208) Ontarians (0.53% of the adult population) experienced homelessness in 2016, a 67.3% increase from 2007.
Conclusions In Ontario, case ascertainment algorithms for identifying homelessness had low sensitivity but very high specificity and positive likelihood ratio. The use of health administrative databases may offer opportunities to track individuals experiencing homelessness over time and inform efforts to improve housing and health status in this vulnerable population.