Earlier this week, I hit the streets of Edmonton donning a bright yellow and orange reflective vest. I could have easily been mistaken for a parking inspector, but I handed out no tickets. I spent most of the day on Tuesday volunteering for Edmonton’s biennial Homeless Count.
Coordinated by Homeward Trust, the count is a city-wide enumeration done by over 300 volunteers every two years. In 2008, the Homeless Count counted 3,079 people as homeless in Edmonton, which was up from 2,618 people counted in 2006. The results of the count provide numbers to help determine trends in the homeless population and does an important job of raising public awareness about homelessness in our City.
As I spent my morning talking with people at the Strathcona Bottle Depot, it dawned on me what a bizarre gathering spot it was. On one hand, I spoke with some homeless people cashing in after a night of bottle collecting, many of them very friendly and up front about their addictions or mental health issues. Coming from a very different situation, I spoke with people who arrived in mini-vans or sports cars, and obviously did have a permanent residence to stay at. As a volunteer, we asked everyone who we enchanted if they had a permanent residence to stay at that night. Not surprisingly, this generated some confused looks.
Over the past year, I have become more aware of homelessness and housing issues in our City. I have particularly become interested in how federal and provincial government policies from the 1990s have contributed to the rise of homelessness in our cities, particularly when it comes to the number of homeless people facing mental health issues. It has been positive to see that after years of having to rely on band-aids and stop-gaps, many social agencies have become the beneficiaries of renewed interest in housing issues by the municipal, provincial, and federal governments. Alberta’s two largest cities have taken different paths in dealing with the challenge of homelessness, but have already accomplished a lot through their 10 year plans (Calgary, Edmonton).
It is difficult to believe that any government-supported initiative of this magnitude will last a decade, but even if it does not survive past the next provincial election, the 10 year plans have already had a positive impact. According to Homeward Trust, since April 2009, 900 people have found housing through the housing first program; 85% remain successfully housed, meaning they have either graduated or are still in the 12 month program.
After volunteering at Homeless Connect earlier this year, I felt like I gained a valuable experience. Even though I live in a downtown neighbourhood, I had until that point never engaged in a real conversation with a homeless person. Once I cast aside all the stigmas and unconscious anxieties that I was carrying, volunteering for Homeless Connect quickly became a rewarding experience and one of the reasons why I did not hesitate to sign up for the Homeless Count.
Homeward Trust will be holding another Homeless Connect event on October 17, 2010 and are looking for volunteers.