BY SARAH BERMAN, OPENFILE
For a third year in a row, Vancouver’s spring homeless count wrapped up late last night. Volunteers scoured alleyways, parks, shelters and hospitals to gather information about the city’s shifting homeless population.
“We ask where they stayed last night, what their age is, whether they’re with a spouse or child or other relative,” says Judy Graves, co-ordinator of Vancouver’s tenant-assistance program. Graves oversaw Metro Vancouver’s first homeless count in 2002. She says details like income, gender, physical disabilities and illnesses are also collected.
Although the province conducts a regional survey of homelessness every three years, in 2010 Mayor Gregor Robertson proposed a yearly count within city boundaries exclusively. In the wake of the Olympics, the Vancouver-only count aimed to track the progress of Vision’s promise to end street homelessness by 2015.
Last year’s count found that street homelessness decreased from 420 to 154, but that the number of homeless people in shelters climbed from 1,294 to 1,427. “What we found last year is that we’ve stabilized the number of people who are homeless overall,” says Graves. “We’re told by researchers all over North America that when you hit that point where it’s not growing higher, that’s the point when you can address the problem and be confident you’re on the right track.”
But even with the introduction of HEAT emergency shelters, Graves says there isn’t enough space to house the city’s most vulnerable. “We don’t have enough shelter for everyone to come in,” she says. “Our shelters are full to capacity every night.”
Volunteer training for the homeless count began last week. With a decade of experience under her belt, Graves shared her nuanced strategy for reaching out to men, women and children living on the streets. “First of all we let people know that this is not dangerous,” she explains. “People in the street respond with the same kind of treatment they’re given. When volunteers use good manners people will respond very positively.”
Graves says one of the most difficult parts of the job is identifying who is homeless. She suggests volunteers look for people walking with a different pace or gait. “For some, their feet are always sore, or their hips and back are sore from sleeping on cement,” she says. “It’s almost like everyone else is doing the same dance—but the homeless are often going to a different rhythm.”
According to Graves, making mistakes is also part of the counting process. “You may start talking to somebody who’s housed,” she says. “You’ve got to be prepared to give people the line and make a bit of a fool of yourself,” she says.
But as the cost of living steadily climbs, Graves says volunteers are often surprised by how widespread homelessness has become. “You’ll find far more homeless people than you knew were there,” she says. “You can trace it over time. As the cost of housing goes up, more people fall out of the housing system.”
West End MLA Spencer Herbert also participated in this year’s count: “Finished bushwacking in part of Stanley Park for Vancouver’s homelessness count,” read Herbert’s Twitter stream early Tuesday morning. The politician said he found abandoned camps and chatted with three homeless people. Graves herself completed a round of interviews at First United Church, and then partnered with Gregor Robertson for a morning street survey.
Although a Metro-wide count is scheduled for 2014, Graves says Vancouver is planning another municipal survey in 2013. “The city of Vancouver wants to measure every year,” she says. “This way, we have data within the city limits of Vancouver [as well as] the advantage of being able to access data all the way out to the Fraser Valley.”
Graves says provincial and federal funding is needed to maintain emergency shelters and transition people into affordable housing. The raw numbers from this year’s homeless count will be released at the end of April.
Originally published Wednesday, March 28, 2012