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.


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!

Playing Elves at Santas Anonymous

Mack and I had signed up a little too late for last year’s Wrapping Tweetup, an annual event organized by Brittney to help Santas Anonymous for an evening. We made sure not to make the same mistake this year.

On Friday night, we headed to their warehouse just north of the City Centre Airport, a different location than when we volunteered two years ago. There were over a dozen people already there, busily wrapping gifts.

Santas Anonymous

The warehouse

We were assigned bagging duty – placing gifts for each household securely in a bag, then sorting it by location. Time flew by quickly, as it always seems to, and though the group made a small dent on the number packages bagged, the remaining tags were still too numerous to count, and of course, requests will continue to come in for the next few weeks.

Santas Anonymous

Mack bags a package

The need is mind boggling, and a reminder of how many families are less fortunate in our very community. And though Santas Anonymous has, thankfully, been providing this wonderful service in Edmonton for 55 years now, it is also stunning that they haven’t yet secured a permanent home to conduct their business (the Jerry Forbes Centre for Community Spirit, which will house Santas Anonymous, as well as other non-profit organizations, is not slated to be completed until 2013).

Santas Anonymous

Waiting to be delivered

If you’re looking to help out at the Santas Anonymous warehouse, click here. Or, there’s always the delivery days, December 18-19, 2010 – another very worthwhile experience. Thanks to Brittney for organizing this opportunity!

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.


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!

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.


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. 


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.