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Homeless count could show improvement

Volunteers last conducted a comprehensive count of the region
Volunteers last conducted a comprehensive count of the region's homeless in 2008. the 2011 count takes place Wednesday, March 16.
— image credit: File

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.

"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.

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).

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.

They include Vancouver's HEAT (Homeless Emergency Action Team) shelters that opened in advance of the 2010 Olympics, three of which continue to offer 340 year-round spaces after the province extended funding.

Vancouver has also added an extra 160 cold/wet weather beds and Pratt said people from elsewhere in the region may have headed to Vancouver to take advantage of the extra shelter spaces there.

Also new since 2008 is the 55-bed Gateway of Hope shelter in Langley, with another shelter opening soon in the Tri-Cities.

"Vancouver has done a marvellous job of creating shelter beds, but there's also been more housing provided," said Alice Sundberg, co-chair of the Metro Vancouver Regional Steering Committee on Homelessness.

"In Surrey, a lot of people have been housed."

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.

The Surrey Women’s Centre is looking to connect with women and children who currently are or are at risk of becoming homeless. They will be conducting the homeless count surveys, as well as providing information about the services the centre provides.

The centre will also have its free clothing closet open, and will have snacks, gift certificates, toiletries and cigarettes available for those who participate in the survey.

Surrey Women’s Centre is located at 10075 Whalley Boulevard, and is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

"People with no fixed address are included as homeless people," Sundberg said. "If they are in a hospital and of no fixed address, we won't find them if we're just looking on the street. But they might be out on the street in a few days."

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.

"A lot of housing is coming on stream in the next year," she said.

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.

Ron van Wyk, programs director for the Mennonite Central Committee of B.C., said about 150 volunteers will simultaneously count the homeless in the Fraser Valley Regional District, up as far as Boston Bar.

He said 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.

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