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Volunteers search for ‘hidden problem’ during Surrey’s homeless count

Organizer says there are some challenges when it comes to identifying people
Volunteers Diane Gulbransen, left, and Silvana Biondi during the 2020 Homeless Count in Surrey. The two were walking around Whalley to speak with people experiencing homelessness. (Photo: Lauren Collins)

“Everybody counts.”

That’s the message Silvana Biondi wanted to pass along as she volunteered for the 2020 Metro Vancouver Homeless Count in Surrey on Wednesday (March 4).

More than 1,200 volunteers in 17 communities, including Surrey, took part in the count, which started Tuesday night (March 3) at shelters and continued on the streets Wednesday from 6 a.m. to midnight.

READ ALSO: Identifying homeless is ‘the biggest selling point’ for funding: White Rock mayor, March 5, 2020

Biondi said that prior to the count, she had spoken to homeless people who said they aren’t treated well by others because of their situation.

“I said, ‘You matter as much as anybody else that’s here right now,” Biondi told the Now-Leader. “I think that’s what they end up feeling like, is that they’re not counted, physically, as well as mentally, just as a human being, as a person.

“You feel very alienated, you know.”

And Biondi knows. She was homeless herself for several months.

“I’ve been in this situation, albeit, not as long as some people have, I felt like maybe I might have something to offer,” Biondi said. “Also being a former addict… I just felt maybe I’ve walked in some of these people’s shoes and who better to relate to than somebody that has indeed experienced these things that they’re experiencing right now?”

On Wednesday, Biondi was partnered with Diane Gulbransen for a walking route through Whalley. Both women were first-time volunteers for the count.

The pair started their walk from the City Centre Library, down University Drive to Holland Park, where they met a woman sitting in the sun. Gulbransen approached her, and told the woman about the count, asking if she knew of anyone who was homeless in the area and where they might be able to find them. The woman, who was not homeless, directed them to some areas where they could find people, such as NightShift Street Ministries and Surrey Urban Mission.

Gulbransen said it was important for her to not outright ask if someone was homeless.

“People don’t have a homeless look. Even if you’re homeless, people take pride in themselves as much as possible.”

But she acknowledged that it can be a “hidden problem” at times.

“I think I just want to make sure we can capture as many people as we can,” Gulbransen said.

Asked if they were nervous to approach people, they said they were given a sample introduction to help deal with any nerves that may come with approaching people.

“I was at first, but now I think I’m OK,” said Biondi. “I barely slept a wink last night because I was so nervous.”

But she added that she didn’t want to come back empty-handed, without any surveys filled out.

The two continued on to King George Boulevard, speaking to a man panhandling on the median at 100th Avenue. While he wasn’t homeless either, he was able to direct the women to other locations that might be helpful.

In an hour, Biondi and Gulbransen talked to several people, but found only two people who said they were experiencing homelessness, with one of them having already been surveyed. The two, who were outside of a business, were being told to move elsewhere by security.

A former musician, who sang a rendition of the Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon,” said he had been homeless for the past 20 years or so. He’s now in his 70s.

Jonquil Hallgate is one of the organizers for the Surrey count. She said that sometimes during the count, there are a number of reasons it can be difficult to find people willing to talk.

“Even for somebody who’s been on the street for many years, just acknowledging to somebody that you don’t know that you don’t have a place to call home is hard,” Hallgate said.

“When you think about all the things in your life that you don’t share with other people and then we’re coming along and we’re asking this whole set of really invasive questions and people are gracious enough to be willing to answer… because they recognize that the more information that we can gather, the more informed we can be about advocating for what’s needed in terms of housing and resources and supports.”

The homeless count, run by the BC Non-Profit Housing Association, is meant to determine the number of people experiencing homelessness and how those numbers have also changed over the years. It’s also used to collect demography information to help understand who is experiencing homelessness and why, so that BCNPHA “can improve programs and outreach to better serve these populations and, ultimately, to end homelessness.”

Hallgate said people look at the numbers, and only see whether there has been an increase or a decrease.

“There are a whole bunch of factors that go into that. We’ve got modular builds, and a lot of people that were homeless back in 2017, have a place indoors, but it’s a transition.”

She said that what people don’t think about is that “every time you get somebody into a shelter or into a transition space, or even houses, that many more people are entering into homelessness”

Since the last count in 2017, the three modular sites have opened, moving people off of 135A Street and into temporary modular housing.

“That’s where the conundrum is that as many people are being housed that many more are entering into because of economics, losing jobs, incomes not meeting the costs of living,” Hallgate said. “We have a 0.4 per cent vacancy rate in Surrey, and there’s nothing that’s affordable if you’re living on $375 to pay for rent and utilities. It’s just impossible.”

As for the temporary modulars, Hallgate said that “in some way” they could affect the homeless count in Surrey.

“Some people got housed, not everybody,” she said. “Because 135A was no longer available to them in terms of a space to be, (they) moved out to different areas of the city, maybe where we didn’t see as many people before in Fleetwood, or maybe we didn’t see as many people in Cloverdale or White Rock.

“People have moved out a bit, so that’s an issue.”

READ ALSO: The toll on Surrey streets, March 16, 2017

READ ALSO: Count finds 49% more homeless people in Surrey, April 10, 2017

READ ALSO: Delta has largest proportion of homeless youth in Metro Vancouver, Sept. 30, 2017

In 2017, the homeless count recorded 602 people in Surrey, including 399 sheltered and 203 unsheltered. It’s widely considered an undercount.

That number was up from the 403 people identified in 2014.

Meantime, preliminary numbers from the count will be released in April, with the full report being released in September.

– With files from Amy Reid

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Lauren Collins

About the Author: Lauren Collins

I'm a provincial reporter for Black Press Media's national team, after my journalism career took me across B.C. since I was 19 years old.
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