On Tuesday morning, Mack and I had the opportunity to volunteer for the eighth Homeless Count, an initiative coordinated by Homeward Trust. Every two years, a “snapshot” of the number of people without permanent accommodation is taken in Edmonton in order to advise and advocate for proper funding to address the issues of homelessness and affordable housing. From the website:
“At last count, there were 2,618 homeless people living in our community…1,774 were absolutely homeless, meaning they not only didn’t have a home of their own, they had no housing alternatives. That forced them to either sleep on the streets, a park, stairwell, or if they were lucky, with a friend. The remaining 844 people were ‘sheltered’ homeless. These people were living in emergency accommodations at the time of the count, but had no permanent place to live.”
We attended an orientation last Thursday, which was quite helpful in preparing us for what was to take place on Tuesday. We were given a light supper, our “base sites” as enumerators were assigned, and we listened to a presentation about various aspects of the count. A police constable reminded us about “common sense” safety, an organizer ran through the questions we would ask, and perspectives from a former volunteer and someone who was formerly homeless were shared.
The diversity in presenters made the hour-long session zoom by, and our favourite speaker had to be Leonard, the gentleman providing a first-hand account of living on the street. His honesty was unintentionally funny (he advised that the best time to count homeless people was at 10am – when liquor stores open), but his candid nature was refreshing. Everything enumerators needed to know was covered that night, and the package that we were given provided text support in the event that volunteers needed additional reinforcement of procedure.
Susan McGee, the Executive Director of Homeward Trust, did briefly speak to the methodology of the count, which has been questioned over the years – how can a count of transient and often hidden persons actually take place? She acknowledged the inherent flaws of the method, but essentially responded with a “this is the best we can do” mentality. And as the count would also take place in shelters, drop-in centres, hospitals, bottle depots and the food bank, the most complete picture possible of the situation would be captured.
On Tuesday, we headed to the John Howard Society, our base site, and received our route, along 107 Avenue. Before heading out, we put on our reflective City of Edmonton vests, and badges delineating our purpose.
Homeless Count badge
Our route was further than we had expected – about a 20 minute distance on foot. We elected to take a bus there so we would be there closer to our expected start time of 10am. As it was a truly blustery day, we weren’t surprised that the streets looked vastly empty. There were a few pedestrians here and there (and as we were to approach everyone we encountered, at least we could spread awareness via our questions), but the majority of people we spoke to were actually waiting at bus stops. As the Avenue of Nations area houses quite a high number of immigrant and refugee residents, it was also expected that a number of people weren’t able to understand enough English to answer our queries. It occurred to me that the question itself – “Do you have a permanent residence to return to tonight?” could be heard and interpreted as a question about Canadian status by those who understand English as an Additional Language.
107 Avenue route
We ended up having enough time to walk up and down our street just over three times – great exercise, but one I should have prepared for better by wearing more comfortable shoes. It wasn’t a taxing shift at all, and we both really enjoyed the advocacy role we could play when people asked us why we were asking such questions. We returned to our base site once our shift was over (apparently we were the “first to arrive” for our time slot, and the “last to leave”), and handed over our tally sheets.
Me and Mack in our reflective glory
The 2008 Homeless Count report should be out by the end of the month, and will be accessible on their website. Thanks to the organizers of the count for this opportunity to volunteer for a great cause.