SURREY — The rust on the tent poles laying on her worn, blue duffel bag stood out.
Almost as eye-catching were the bloody sores on her hands and face.
Standing outside a Whalley McDonalds on a damp Wednesday morning, the 28-year-old Aboriginal woman said she slept in the bush the night before, despite having paid rent somewhere this month.
She was talking to two volunteers with the Metro Vancouver Homeless Count, run by the BC Non-Profit Housing Association, which aims to provide a snapshot of the region’s homeless population.
They were two of more than 1,200 volunteers around the region – roughly 200 in Surrey alone – that hit the streets on March 8 to count the homeless population, as is done every three years in Metro Vancouver.
Armed with yellow buttons, pens and surveys, the volunteers’ mission was to locate as many homeless people as they could, the results of which will be used for acquiring resources and creating an understanding of the homeless demographic.
The count actually began the night before, with a tally of homeless people staying in shelters. But the street snapshot began as early as 5 a.m., for some volunteers.
Surrey Homelessness & Housing Society’s Jen McCaffrey began her day at 10 a.m., along with her teammate for the day, Amy Makepeace.
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(Photo: Jen McCaffrey interviews a woman outside a Whalley McDonalds.)
The duo was assigned a route in the heart of Whalley. Leaving the City Centre Library, they walked up to King George, criss-crossed their way toward Dollarama, then to McDonalds, where they spent about an hour.
Inside, a table of five or so other homeless people enjoyed coffee together.
They were staying warm.
“Hi there, we’re part of the homeless count, and we’re looking to speak to people who haven’t paid rent anywhere this month. Would that be your circumstance?”
It was McCaffrey’s intro of choice, and she gently asked each person she came across some variation of it.
One man in a red jacket read the paper. He nervously agreed to answer survey questions.
“Do it,” urged a homeless woman Lucinda, also enjoying coffee that morning. “It helps get low-income housing. I did mine already.”
An African-American man sitting at the table explained he rents a motorhome but parks it on the street.
Some people move along before the volunteers have a chance to engage with them. Others don’t want to be counted.
And therein lies the catch. People must be willing to identify as homeless to be counted. And some don’t take kindly to the questions, which include where people slept last night (in a vehicle, or a tent perhaps), health conditions, sources of income, and if one identifies as transgender.
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(Amy Makepeace, left, and Jen McCaffrey look at their map to determine where to go next.)
Down the road at the welfare office in Whalley, 13 people stood outside. Only one was counted as part of the survey.
Up the street, outside a bistro, a man sat on a bench with his hood on, staring at the ground. He said he had ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and that he’s homeless.
While the volunteers knelt on the ground and heard his story, well-kept young women laughed while enjoying lunch inside (pictured below).
The juxtaposition was striking.
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Minutes later, about a block away, the two women stumbled across a makeshift house – a green tarp affixed to the window of an empty Whalley storefront with red tape. Bikes and blankets lay on the ground around it.
“Hello?” they asked.
A man popped his head out of the tent, while water from gutters overhead pooled just steps away from the opening of his tent.
He agreed to be surveyed – though two women who came to visit him didn’t.
“We have places,” one insisted.
Of all the people the two volunteers came across that day, 11 were counted.
“I think this is what I expected,” McCaffrey mused near the end of her four-hour street shift.
“I think there’s a lot of judgment and stigma, and everyone we’re meeting today is human and these are good people.”
There were a lot of demographic trends, McCaffrey noted. Many reported interactions with the Ministry of Child and Family Development through foster care. And almost all had medical and/or mental health conditions.
“It’s easy for your average person to think we don’t need to deal with this problem, because that person got themselves into that problem and that situation themselves,” said McCaffrey. “I don’t think that’s the reality. I think we’re hearing that today.
“They’re all ticking the boxes that they have serious chronic medical conditions and disabilities and they don’t know how to advocate for themselves,” she added. “They don’t have the social capital to look after themselves, and here they are. Then they face a bureaucracy that’s really challenging.”
Just then, the volunteers spotted a woman carrying a black garbage bag containing what appeared to be a pillow and blanket stopped to speak with the volunteers.
She anxiously admitted she spent the previous night sleeping in an abandoned building.
“Thanks for doing this,” she said to McCaffrey and Makepeace before departing.
“We need more housing.”
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Back at the home base, which for Surrey was a meeting room at City Centre Library, longtime homelessness advocate Jonquil Hallgate kept watch.
Ushering in new troupes as they arrived, and sending them out on routes, she armed every team with a map of their assigned route.
She was putting in a 17-hour shift that day: 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.
It’s Hallgate’s sixth time doing the homeless count, her involvement spanning 18 years.
A lot has changed in that time, she explained.
“It’s funny, you think back 16 or 18 years ago, we thought we could solve it,” she said. “We used to talk about solving homelessness. Now it’s how do you stem the tide of homelessness, not about solving it. People have recognized, as many people as we help to house, more people enter into homelessness, and so the piece that’s missing is the preventative piece. There’s not enough dollars attached to initiatives that prevent people from becoming homeless.”
Hallgate (pictured) rattled off the many circumstances of the people she’s encountered working on the front lines. A single mom who loses a job, or faces the loss of a rental home to development pressures. A senior living on a limited pension after the loss of a spouse. A citizen whose life trajectory changes after a catastrophic work accident. Refugees fleeing violence. And while youth and women with children are hard groups to capture in the count, they’re out there, she added.
“And we’re seeing more and more homeless folks who are living with chronic medical issues and disabilities,” she revealed. “I think back 10 years ago and that was the exception to the rule and now it’s pretty well across the board… We also have a lot of people living on the street with brain injuries like PTSD.”
A volunteer team returned, and Hallgate smiled as she asked, “How many did you get? A thousand?”
She paused after the volunteer left, and her smile faded.
“It’s not that you want to count thousands of people but if you don’t count anybody then people don’t think you have a problem,” she said.
Surrey Councillor Vera LeFranc stopped by the command centre. It’s the first time she hasn’t volunteered with the survey.
“I think the count is really important because I know this is how government often makes decision on need,” said LeFranc.
“It’s important to make sure we track year over year and have some baseline to go from to know how we’re doing... The other important thing is to know how our homeless population is changing, have the demographics shifted?” she added. “I know it only happens every three years, but you can see trends over time.”
LeFranc said her sense from the city’s service providers is that they’re “pretty discouraged.”
“They’re working harder than ever and they’re not stemming the tide. There was a study done out of the U.S. that shows for every $100 that rents go up, homelessness rises by 15 per cent. So there’s a direct correlation between the cost of living, the cost of housing and homelessness in our region.”
LeFranc said Metro Vancouver’s strategy to tackle homelessness is to make it “rare, brief and only once” and she agreed.
“We need to make sure we wrap our services around them because this is a zero sum game.”
LeFranc noted there’s a “real shortage” of transitional and affordable housing.
“With an election coming, we’ve got lots of good news stories with announcements coming out right now, but I heard yesterday there’s a need for 6,500 rental housing units to be built in the Lower Mainland and we are only achieving 1,500. So we need to catch up.”
“There will alway be people becoming homeless,” Hallgate said. “It’s how quickly you can get them rehoused.”
Though a necessary and valuable exercise, the homeless numbers are widely considered an undercount, said Hallgate.
“The count doesn’t give us the number we believe is the reality,” she said. While some may look at Surrey’s numbers (which have been around 400 in the last three counts), and seen success, Hallgate doesn’t agree simply because “we know that number’s not realistic.”
To combat that this year, a pilot project was launched in Newton. Two extra days of counting took place there, on March 9 and 10.
The last regional count in 2014 didn’t identify a single person in Fleetwood, Guildford or Newton, but a Newton BIA count last year found more than 50 homeless people in the town core alone.
Hallgate hopes the Newton count will reveal “how we can better improve the methodology of the count in its whole” and “determine why it is that people are being missed.”
Though the main goal, she added, is that the entire count will show emerging trends.
“How can we help people from entering into the whole spectrum of homelessness?” she asked. “The new Guildford shelter has spaces for couples, which is a big issue because many people who have partners refuse to leave them behind, so now it’s been recognized there are many couples and we need to accommodate their needs to keep some semblance of family. Or people with animals. Or whatever the barriers are that exist that in the past have kept people from seeking assistance.
“They already have enough barriers: No money, no place to live, often no friends or family support.”
Some other new strategies were employed this year, including a push to connect with organizations that aid those at risk of homelessness, such as Elizabeth Fry Society and Fraser Region Aboriginal Friendship Centre. This year’s count also included some gurdwaras after it was revealed that homeless people may be staying at temples overnight.
“It wouldn’t occur to me that people would stay in a gurdwara. Somebody in passing made a comment so I said hold on a second,” said Hallgate, “so that’s now on our radar. You think about how many gurdwaras there are in Surrey, if there’s even one in each one, that’s a large number of folks.”
The preliminary results of the count will be released on April 4.