Homeward Trust Volunteer Appreciation Party at Fort Edmonton Park

As far as short-term volunteer commitments go, I think Homeward Trust offers some great opportunities to give back. Whether at Homeless Connect or through the Homeless Count, being involved in their projects always feels rewarding.

That said, they also know how to appreciate their volunteers. In the past, they have treated us to baseball games, but with the Capitals out of commission this year, they had to do something different: they rented out the midway at Fort Edmonton Park!

Homeward Trust Volunteer Appreciation

Last Thursday, Mack and I joined at least a hundred other volunteers after hours at the Park. The sunny conditions were perfect for the festivities, which kicked off with a barbecue supper. Everything was organized to reflect a date at an old fashioned carnival, right down to the glass bottle drinks.

Homeward Trust Volunteer Appreciation

Picnic supper

After supper, the Park staff came out to play, and the midway came alive. Mack will tell you I was most looking forward to taking a spin on the Ferris wheel –after several failed attempts, we were finally at the Park at a time when the ride was actually running!

Homeward Trust Volunteer Appreciation

Ferris Wheel

The view may have been slightly more interesting if we had been facing the other side of the midway, or if the Park was fully open and filled with patrons at the train station, but it was still a big kid thrill to perch at the top of the wheel. It turns out you can see the Whitemud from the vantage point.

Homeward Trust Volunteer Appreciation

We also indulged in a spin on the carousel, where Mack, in spite of himself, had a really good time.

Homeward Trust Volunteer Appreciation

Woot!

Most of the carnival games were also open, with prizes like paddle boards, frisbees and Chinese finger traps up for grabs. Though it was fun just to play, I actually won a few things, too!

Homeward Trust Volunteer Appreciation

Hoop-la

After we had our fun, we took a walk down 1920 and 1905 Streets. We thought the rest of the Park would be quiet, but it turned out there was a show going on at Capitol Theatre that night! It was nice to see others enjoying the attraction that evening as well.

Homeward Trust Volunteer Appreciation

Capitol Theatre

Homeward Trust Volunteer Appreciation

Can’t you just imagine the streetcar going by?

Homeward Trust Volunteer Appreciation

One of my favourite places in the Park

Homeward Trust Volunteer Appreciation

On the swings at Gyro Park

Thanks again to Homeward Trust for a great night!

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!

Volunteering for the 2010 Homeless Count

The eighth count of Homeless people found 3079 homeless∗ people in the City of Edmonton. Of these, 1862 were absolute homeless (having no housing alternative) and 1217 were sheltered homeless (living in emergency accommodations). This represents an increase of 18% in the overall number of homeless individuals in the City of Edmonton from the 2006 count tally of 2618.

-from A Count of Homeless Persons 2008, Homeward Trust

After volunteering for the last Homeless Count in 2008, I started noticing that the final count of 3,079 was cited often – not unexpected given that it’s the best guess agencies have available, but surprising given the caveat on the possible margin of error given the methodology. Still, because of its pronounced use as a likely basis for funding, and more than anything, its encapsulation of the homeless population for the public, I knew I wanted to volunteer for the count again this year.

In light of the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, and in particular, the Housing First model that the plan embraces (having placed over 900 people in housing), I am really hoping that the count finds a decrease in the number of homeless people in Edmonton. Of course, this would mean that the number of homeless would have had to remain somewhat stagnant since 2008, but I’d like to be hopeful.

I headed to Boyle Street Co-op (my base camp site) this morning and met Fraser, who would be my buddy for the count. Our route ran along 107 and 107A Avenue, through both Central McDougall and McCauley neighbourhoods, and definitely saw more foot traffic than the route I had last year along the same Avenue but further west in Queen Mary Park.

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Avenue of Nations route

Similar to what Mack and I found two years ago, we encountered many people in this ethnically-diverse area who passed on answering the questions because of English language barriers (it might be worthwhile for volunteers with second language capabilities to be recruited for future counts). Also, many, once finished answering our questions, were curious about why the survey was being done – a great opportunity to mention the work being done and coordinated by Homeward Trust.

It is worth noting that we also talked to a few people who admitted to being formerly homeless, but had strong opinions on what could be done better to address the issues. For example, one man expressed his opposition to the construction of another social housing complex in the inner city, stating that the temptation for relapse for residents in such an area is much higher than when compared with less central neighbourhoods (he may have been referring to the complex for recovering drug addicts that was just turned down by a city board in Central McDougall).

The 2010 report should be out by mid-November. Thanks again to Homeward Trust for this opportunity to volunteer – it’s always a humbling experience.

If you’re looking to give back, consider volunteering at the upcoming Homeless Connect on October 17, 2010. Hope to see you there!

Baseball Night in Edmonton with Homeward Trust

Last week, Homeward Trust treated their Homeless Connect volunteers to an Edmonton Capitals game. It was a very different kind of volunteer appreciation evening, but one that provided a refreshing change from the usual appetizers and drinks, and as Mack said, the formal thank-you speeches. And really, what’s better than a local agency supporting another local organization?

Edmonton Capitals

Batter up!

As Mack said in his write-up, this was our first visit to Telus Field in a number of years. I know the last time I attended a baseball game, the team that played here was called the Edmonton Trappers! Much has changed since then – the team that calls Telus Field home is now the Edmonton Capitals, a part of the Golden Baseball League. Their season has been great so far, with a record of (as of today) 29-15.

That night, they were playing the Tijuana Cimarrones (I had no idea the GBL included teams from as far away as Mexico and Hawaii). The Capitals pulled into an early lead, and helped along by a few home runs, won easily 14-5.

Edmonton Capitals

Let’s play ball!

Though baseball is far from my favourite sport, I thoroughly enjoyed the change of pace and the venue (with a perfect line of sight of both the High Level Bridge and the Legislature). However, it felt a bit like the opposite of what we experienced at our last Eskimos game – instead of being underdressed, we were overdressed – in jeans and without any sun protection, we absolutely baked in our west-facing seats.

Edmonton Capitals

It was HOT

To escape the heat, we spent a lot of time wandering the innards of Telus Field to check out their reasonably-priced food menu. We had eaten a full meal at home before the game, but couldn’t resist a slurpee and an ice cream as efforts to keep cool. And, well, when I saw their gourmet hot dog offerings (which they claim to be the most extensive in the city), I just had to try one.

The perogy dog ($4.50) came topped with cheese, bacon, onions, fried potatoes and loads of sour cream. I could have done without the latter, but other than that, it was pretty tasty, and definitely something creative that I wouldn’t have expected to be sold at the ballpark (Telus is no Citi Field).

Edmonton Capitals

Perogy dog

I also have to applaud the Capitals for being ahead of the curve when it comes to promotions. Though their regular tickets are quite affordable at just $10 each, between their 4 for $44 Thursdays (4 tickets, 4 hot dogs and 4 drinks for $44), movie nights (watch a movie screening out on the field following the game), and innovative ideas such as offering free parking to those who carpool with four or more individuals, I think the Capitals will be around for years to come.

Edmonton Capitals

Mack and mascot Razzle

Thanks again to Homeward Trust for the tickets! It was a great way to unwind on a summer evening in Edmonton.

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.

Homeless Count 2008

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.