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Homeless count in region hoped to show improvement

A volunteer takes information from the homeless during the 2008 count in the Lower Mainland. - Black Press photo
A volunteer takes information from the homeless during the 2008 count in the Lower Mainland.
— image credit: Black Press photo

Neil CORBETT

and Jeff NAGEL, Abbotsford News

Housing advocates are cautiously optimistic a new regional homeless count that happens once every three years may find fewer people with no roof over their heads.

More than 700 trained volunteers will roam streets, fields and shelters next Wednesday (March 16) to count the number of homeless across the Lower Mainland in a single 24-hour snapshot.

Ron Van Wyk, the director of programs for Mennonite Central Committee B.C., is working with the Fraser Valley Regional District  planning department to organize the count in the Upper Fraser Valley. The last tally in 2008 showed the area from Boston Bar to Abbotsford had an estimated 465 people who were deemed homeless.

In Abbotsford, the number was 235, and in Mission the estimate was 100.

“We’re hoping at least the situation hasn’t increased,” Van Wyk said, noting there are more programs and services to help people living on the street.

He said the count is not perfect, but the same method is used in communities across the continent. During a 24-hour window, beginning at 10 p.m., agencies count those who use homeless shelters, and in other places where it is known homeless people stay overnight. They ask questions and record the reasons the person is homeless, their gender, age and home community.

He said Mission now has a homeless shelter that is available 24/7, thanks to the homeless count. Abbotsford’s Cyrus Centre, which serves homeless teens, was also a response to information gleaned in the survey.

“It confirmed that there are youth who are homeless and sleeping rough,” said Van Wyk.

Shelter beds in Abbotsford aren’t as busy as they have been in past years.

“We think the new shelter that was opened in Mission certainly helped alleviate the pressure in Abbotsford,” van Wyk said.

But he noted some advocates in Chilliwack think homelessness there may have doubled since 2008, adding it’s difficult to predict what the count will find.

“It’s always an undercount because you don’t get everybody,” he said.

“But it’s the best methodology we have in North America.”

Three years ago, the count found 2,660 homeless people across Metro Vancouver – 22 per cent more than in 2005 and big increases in the Tri-Cities, Burnaby, Maple Ridge and Richmond. The largest numbers of homeless were counted in Vancouver (1,372), Surrey (388), New Westminster (123) and North Vancouver (116).

“We’re hopeful that we’ll see a stemming of the tide of homelessness – that we’ll see the numbers leveling off, if not reduced,” said James Pratt, spokesman for the Greater Vancouver Shelter Strategy.

Pratt said fewer clients have used extreme cold weather spaces this winter, suggesting more street homeless are taking advantage of extra shelter beds that opened in Vancouver and other parts of the region since the last count in 2008.

She credits the province with funding shelters to run 24 hours a day rather than just overnight, adding that makes it much easier for outreach workers to find and assist those who need help changing their lives.

As a result of the extra spaces and reforms, Sundberg said, this year’s count may find a drop in the number of street homeless, but possibly more who are counted as sheltered.

“We don’t want to set up expectations that the numbers will be down significantly,” Sundberg cautioned.

That’s in part because this year’s survey will for the first time count people of no fixed address in various institutions who weren’t included in the past. Hospitals, jails, detox centres and other transition facilities have agreed to count people there who otherwise have no homes, she said.

Besides the Olympics and the focus it brought to the homelessness problem, the recession hit hard over the past three years, increasing the numbers of people out of work.

Sundberg said 1,400 new supportive housing units coming on stream in Vancouver in the next couple of years, along with more than 100 in Surrey, should help.

The count begins at midnight March 16 in shelters and starting at 4 a.m. volunteers armed with questionnaires will fan out to search the streets and other areas homeless people are known to frequent.

Outreach workers will accompany them to provide assistance.

Anyone interested in volunteering for the Fraser Valley homeless count may call Tamara Leslie at 604-852-9305.

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