Volunteers hit the streets to count Abbotsford’s homeless

A notoriously difficult task, count takes place every three years

  • Mar. 10, 2017 6:00 a.m.
Sarah Fung

Sarah Fung

Every day across Abbotsford, hundreds of people bed down in cars, shelters, tents and sometimes just sleeping bags.

On Wednesday, dozens of volunteers attempted to count every one of those men, women and youth lacking permanent housing.

It’s a complex task that attempts to put cold hard statistics to a problem that’s notoriously difficult to track. But Sharon Forbes, the co-founder of Raven’s Moon Resource Society, says doing so is vital for those who hope to illustrate the need for more resources and support.

“If we’re looking at making a case for support of Abbotsford whether it’s provincial funding or federal funding there needs to be accuracy in the actual numbers of the people who are displaced and living rough in Abbotsford, whether they’re staying in shelters or living in street camps or staying in their vehicles,” Forbes said. “There’s a horrible housing crisis in Abbotsford there’s a lack of housing in general and there’s also a huge lack of affordable housing for people, and so the value of the homeless count is to make sure Abbotsford is not forgotten.”

The count is undertaken every three years in both Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley Regional District. This year in the FVRD, the count is being run by long-time co-ordinator Ron van Wyk, of the Mennonite Central Committee, along with UFV criminology students Teresa Witzke and Ashley Reddicopp.

Because of the difficulty associated with counting people who, by definition, have no permanent address and a tendency to move around, Van Wyk has said the number of people counted each year is known to be significantly fewer than the total number of homeless. In 2014, 151 people were counted, but it’s anticipated that the 2017 figure will be significantly higher.

Preparation for the count began months ago, with organizers finalizing the questionnaire and co-ordinating how to best reach homeless men, women and youth in Abbotsford and other Fraser Valley communities. Volunteers and staff from a variety of local non-profits that work with the homeless roam the city and head to places where those without housing are known to either congregate and/or sleep at night.

The questionnaire itself aims to capture basic demographic information, along with information on living arrangements and living habits.

The FVRD questionnaire is closely related to those in Metro Vancouver and to those used in past years. It also includes three new questions: on whether the surveyed individuals have been in government care; on their sexual identity; and whether they have previously served in the Canadian Forces.

Participation is voluntary, but Forbes said respondents are usually willing to participate once they know the data is anonymized and is used to show the need for services.

“They don’t want to sleep outside in the pouring rain,” she said.

Results of the count will be released later this month.