Homeless Connect 7

On Sunday, Mack and I volunteered for the seventh Homeless Connect, the “one-stop shop” of services for those who are homeless or at-risk of being homeless. It takes place twice at year at the Shaw Conference Centre.

Mack!

Homeward Trust always does a great job of coordinating the event (not easy if you consider all of the logistics and players involved), but what is most impressive is that they are never complacent – the staff are always looking for ways of improving the event. This time, for example, they began the orientation period earlier so that volunteers would have a chance to better familiarize themselves with the layout and the services available (something I know I would have appreciated as a new volunteer). As well, they introduced a pre-registration component for the first time.

Registration materials

Mack and I were among a dozen experienced registration volunteers who were asked to help pre-register guests. For about an hour before the doors to the halls opened, we did our best to get through as many people as possible. The intention was to help reduce the bottleneck, and to help service providers better manage the flow of guests – particularly those services which are heavily used, such as dental and hair.

The form, which always changes slightly, will need to be tweaked again. There were way too many options to choose from in the “Where did you hear about the event” question (I’m not sure most volunteers would be able to tell the difference between an “Agency” and a “Service Provider”) and there were a number of options in the immigration-related section that could overlap (e.g. Temporary Foreign Workers and Refugee Claimants could be seeking permanent residence; refugees are likely also landed immigrants). But I realize the data committee just wants to collect as much information as possible to help with future planning, and this event is a good place to do so.

At 10am, we joined the rest of the larger registration team in the hall, and the madness began. Mack and I both figured the numbers of guests this time had to have been extremely high – typically, the line dissipates by around noon, but on Sunday, it was still going strong by the time our shift was over at 12:30.

Registration team!

This was also the first time in the five Homeless Connect events that I have been a part of where I was confronted by a guest who perhaps should have been removed. He was visibly angry and frustrated by the time he reached me at the registration desk – he was upset that he couldn’t get a hot meal right at that moment (lunch wouldn’t be served for another half an hour). Although he had the option of not completing the form, he simply did not want to leave the chair, swearing profusely at several other volunteers who offered to bring him coffee, or take him somewhere to lie down. Two Shaw security officers showed up, but he refused to go with them. Eventually, he filled out the form on his own accord, and stormed off into the hall. While this guest’s behaviour didn’t surprise me (he may have been facing addictions and mental health issues, among other things), what did surprise me was that he was permitted to disrespect and verbally abuse those around him without consequence. I doubt that kind of behaviour would be tolerated at local shelters and drop-in centres, so why would it be accepted here? Hopefully it was just a one-time blip, and not the policy of the event.

Other than that, I really enjoyed my time as a volunteer. It’s such a rewarding event to be a part of, especially when all it takes is a few hours of your time. Kudos to the organizers for another well-run day. Looking forward to Homeless Connect 8 in May!

Volunteering for Homeless Connect 6

I’ve very much started looking forward to Homeless Connect, which happens twice a year, in May and October. Similar to any annual event or festival where seasoned volunteers have the opportunity to reunite again after a period of time, Homeless Connect has become a place for Mack and I to catch up with familiar faces, in addition, of course, to giving back (you can read Mack’s recap here).

Today saw the sixth incarnation of the one-stop shop event geared towards Edmonton’s homeless population. I commented to Mack that although nothing is perfect, Homeless Connect is a great example of an event that really does continuously improve. Organizers weren’t sure if the number of guests would be affected by the gorgeous weather, but at the day’s end, it turned out they needn’t have worried.

Homeless Connect Edmonton 6

Got boots?

For the first time, Mack and I were assigned to a team other than registration – we were to be guides. Once guests were finished filling out the intake form, we would be waved down to escort guests to their service priorities.

Homeless Connect Edmonton 6

The guides get oriented

The system, comparable to an airport taxi queue, was very well organized – guides waited patiently in line for their chance to guide a guest, instead of the free-for-all that it supposedly has been in the past. There were a large number of guides – possibly too many – as it meant all guides had to wait a while before being paired up with a guest, but it did allow volunteers to take breaks without worrying that it would impact the team.

Homeless Connect Edmonton 6

Taxi guides

It was a nice change for me, and definitely meant that I was able to explore the available services firsthand with the guests. As well, it became obvious that some services were better prepared than others (for example, the hairdressers only started implementing a number system until part way through, which led to some frustration). Most guests just wanted to get to point B, but a few didn’t mind the company while they familiarized themselves with the lay of the land.

Homeless Connect Edmonton 6

Hairdressing area

In the past few Homeless Connect events, the line would typically start to dwindle around noon. Today, there was no such decline. And because old habits die hard, I seized an empty table and finished up my day with the registration team.

Homeless Connect Edmonton 6

The registration crush

They had added a new question regarding specific identification needs to the form, and also (finally!) separated the categories of “refugee” and “refugee claimant”. Other than that, the form was very similar to the previous version. My only suggestion is to somehow streamline the set-up so that all registration tables are within the sightline of guests. I was seated at a trio of tables angled in such a way that we were all but forgotten, or worse, couldn’t be seen by the volunteer directing guests to empty registration seats. All this while the line did not wane.

Homeless Connect Edmonton 6

Lunch time!

At the end of the day, 1409 was the preliminary guest count, only slightly less than the number that had accessed Homeless Connect six months prior. Bravo to Homeward Trust, the Shaw Conference Centre for hosting, and to all of the other service agencies for another successful event. See you in October!

Homeless Connect 5

The fifth Homeless Connect took place this past Sunday at the Shaw Conference Centre. We were afraid we would be late for the morning orientation, but when we arrived, we found an absolute logjam of people at the registration tables.

It turned out that the computer systems were down, and as a result, volunteers had to be checked in on paper, a time-consuming task given that volunteer lists were not grouped in alphabetical order, but by shift length and post.

Thankfully, we both knew which area we had been assigned to, so our check-in time once we reached the front of the line was quick, but it undoubtedly meant orientation times were pushed back, and in our case, was cut drastically short.

Dave and Mack

Dave and Mack

The doors were to open at 10am, and by the time we reached our stations, we had just a few minutes to get our bearings at the registration desks. The set up had been flipped around this year, with the entrance to the hall having been moved to the west side. Unfortunately, there wasn’t time to orient ourselves to the services available this year, and the paper map that was provided to us wasn’t detailed enough – neither Mack or I were able to locate the Bissell Centre identification station or clothing depot on the map, among two of the most requested services by guests (on our way out, we did notice a great addition – the offer of ice cream to those who took the time to do an exit interview).

Mack and Me

At our station

Unlike May’s Homeless Connect, the line did not let up that morning at all. We were scheduled to work until 1pm, and the crowd had petered out somewhat by then, but there was still a line. Mack and I both registered 39 people (not including children), and noticed a few trends at least from the guests we talked to: more families seem to attend this time around, and this was the first Homeless Connect for many of the guests. Mack also noticed that many more guests than last time indicated that they were renting their own place (which would make sense given the 900+ people that have been housed through the Housing First program in the last year).

Parking for Strollers

Stroller parking

I know bureaucracy prevents government from being more coordinated than it could be, but I was frustrated on behalf of the guests who talked about their need for official identification. I was excited when I read about the pilot being done by the government to allow individuals to use the address of a shelter to obtain an ID card, and though I know it isn’t realistic for them to have set up shop at the event so quickly, how great would it have been if they had, especially with the fantastic turnout at Sunday’s event?

At the end of the day, approximately 1500 guests had used their services, an increase from six months ago. Bravo to Homeward Trust for coordinating another successful event!

Volunteering for Homeless Connect 3

The third Homeless Connect took place this past Sunday, and Mack and I were there along with about three hundred other volunteers to lend a hand.

At the volunteer orientation

If you are not aware, Homeless Connect is an event organized by Homeward Trust. Homeward Trust coordinates one day in the spring and one in the fall where numerous organizations gather at the Shaw Conference Centre to provide free services and information. In an effort to provide a “one stop shop” of services for underprivileged individuals, this time around, over 60 groups offered everything from haircuts, dental care, immunizations, clothes, reading glasses, and of course, a hot meal.

At the last Homeless Connect in May, we were blurry eyed after just returning from a weeklong vacation in DC the night before, so I am happy to report that we were better adjusted for the daylong shift this time around. It also helped that this incarnation seemed more organized: the large group orientation started relatively on time; the team orientation was conducted in an enclosed space with a microphone (instead of yelling in the auditory vacuum of the hall); and volunteers had an opportunity to ask questions. Both Mack and I ended up on the registration team (the same position I held last time, but different for Mack), and would be one of the first contacts guests would have as they entered the hall. Our team leads went through the registration form with us, and as a result, I actually felt prepared for the task at hand.

Readying for the doors to open

The day started briskly; people had started to line up an hour or two before the doors opened at 10am. The voluntary registration form we had to administer did not collect names, but did ask details about the person’s current living situation. The big change from the previous form was the extremely tedious list of agencies that clients had to either acknowledge that they were aware of, or had used. While I understand that the answers would be extremely valuable for the agencies in understanding whether or not they are connecting with their target population, it was a cumbersome inventory to get through with some guests. Also new this year was a wristband guests received to indicate that they had completed the registration process, meaning they could bypass the registration area if they had to step outside the hall for whatever reason. Such a small detail, but much appreciated and thought-through.

Our registration table

As this was my second round as a registration volunteer, I was once again struck by how the face of homelessness is not a middle-aged male. There were numerous families with young children, and more than a few guests that were my age. It reminded me to take nothing for granted – many of them, I am sure, could have been on the other side of the desk next to me if not for certain circumstances.

Each guest received a bag with personal care items

In the volunteer rest area, I met a fellow volunteer who said that a year before, he was one of the guests, strung out and in dire need of addictions counselling. It was at the November 2008 Homeless Connect that he was introduced to a program that would change his life – he will be celebrating his one year anniversary of sobriety in just over a month. He was at the event as a client wanting to give back, hoping that his own story might convince others to take the path he did.

The final count of guests was somewhere around 1100 – less than half of what the organizers had prepared for. Somehow, I had thought that the colder weather might have encouraged more people to attend the event, but there are so many factors that influence turnout that it’s hard to pinpoint just one.

Regardless, Homeless Connect is a great event – bravo to Homeward Trust, Shaw Conference Centre and the service providers for another successful day.

You can read Mack’s post about the day here. Alex Abboud’s post about volunteering is also worth a read.

Volunteering for Homeless Connect 2

When Mack and I realized that we would be back from DC in time to volunteer for the spring Homeless Connect, we both didn’t hesitate to sign on. Well, I did, briefly, only because the time was not ideal – we’d arrive back in Edmonton late on Saturday, which would mean we’d have six hours of sleep at best before a day of service.

We didn’t volunteer for the first Homeless Connect in Edmonton that took place back in October 2008, but the concept of a one-stop service location for the city’s underprivileged was an intriguing one, and both of us were eager to see how the day would unfold. 

We caught the bus bright and early on Sunday morning to the Shaw Conference Centre, where an 8am volunteer rally was meant to energize us for the day. Through the doors of the hall, Mack and I received our bright blue t-shirts (neon orange shirts marked team leaders), and had coffee while we waited for the proceedings to start.

Almost ready for the day

Due to technical difficulties, the proceedings didn’t start until at least 8:30. While it wasn’t as high-energy as it was advertised to be, outside of MLA David Xiao’s canned and awkward address to the crowd, I appreciated the intent of welcoming and ensuring volunteers understood that their time and assistance was valued.

Volunteers

After the welcome, we were told that volunteers would self-select their teams for the day. With several hundred volunteers, this seemed like a very chaotic way to start the event. I chose to be on registration duty, and along with about 60 people, followed the team lead for a brief orientation. 

And was it ever brief – though we were all treated as capable individuals, I wished something more formal could have been put into place. The five minute spiel we received was much too ad hoc, and while the form and the procedure didn’t seem complicated, compared to the comprehensive overview we were provided before participating in the Homeless Count, I was left feeling a tad unprepared for the task at hand.

We were told to take the time we had before the doors opened at 10am to explore the hall and familiarize ourselves with the services available. I have to commend Homeward Trust for coordinating nearly 60 service providers for this second event – all volunteering their time and services that day – from haircuts, dental services and immunization to elder counselling, clothing distribution and identification provision, it was inspiring to see so many organizations come together to serve the homeless community. 

Elder counselling area

Mack’s volunteer area for the day – free long distance phone calling and internet

Dental services

At 10am, we were greeted to a rush of people, and were kept busy for a while. The registration form captured basic demographic information that would allow the organizers to ensure the services provided were appropriate, and was fairly quick to run through with individuals. After I was finished with the form, I provided each person with a care package, containing a hat, shirt and personal care items, before linking them with a guide who would orient them to the hall and lead them to the service they wanted to take advantage of first. 

Haircuts

Though people did trickle in the rest of the day, it wasn’t too busy after the initial crowd. The team leaders were really great in coming by to let us know that we should take our lunch break (and any other breaks we needed to), and we were able to have a hot meal alongside clients. I was also able to chat quite a bit with my registration desk partner – he said that now that he and his wife were empty nesters, they had more time to volunteer. It was his first time being involved with an event like this, and he said it really opened his eyes – most of the people he had interviewed did not fit his previous image of “homelessness”.

I met many people that day – a father who was struggling to get his life back in order so his daughter could return to his care, a woman who had just moved into a new apartment that weekend, with the help of a support agency, and a mother who was interested in getting her son a much-needed haircut. It was amazing how just sitting down with someone for a few minutes provided so much perspective on things.

We were told that this event was much more organized than the first, but that numbers were likely down for a variety of reasons (weather, experience of long lines at the last event). I think Homeless Connect 3 will only improve on efficiency, and based on this experience, I think I will be volunteering again on October 4.

You can read Mack’s thoughts on the day here, and see his photoset here.