Health sciences students enrolled in a course on community and health service take to the streets in Surrey as volunteers for Metro Vancouver's Homeless Count.

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Students join homeless count for lesson on the streets

March 09, 2017
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A class of SFU health sciences students hit the pavement in Surrey this week as part of Metro Vancouver’s sixth Homeless Count, and came away with a different view of life on the street.

The 20 students were among 250 Surrey volunteers and 1,200 to canvas the streets throughout the metro region over a 24-hour period. Each spent two hours administering a short survey to homeless individuals on the street and in local shelters after a brief training session by City of Surrey social planner Kristin Patten.

Their contributions to the count will provide critical information on the number and characteristics of the region’s homeless population, and will shed light on how things have changed since the previous count in 2014. The counts have been held every three years since 2002.

The fourth-year SFU students are enrolled in a course called Community and Health Service (HSC 449), taught by lecturer Paola Ardiles. “Homelessness and poverty, as important determinants of physical and mental health, are a key part of the curriculum and students were keen to participate in this event,” she says. “The experience has put a face to the problem for these students, who are working to be part of the solution.”

Student Colin Sham was assigned to a location along Surrey’s 135a strip, well-known for its homeless community. “Those I spoke with, people of all ages and backgrounds, described the many challenges they face on a daily basis, despite the fact that some of them had shared a background similar to my own,” said Sham.

His visit to the neighborhood’s shelters was an eye-opening first-time experience. “I was surprised to see each bed was neatly situated, the sleeping area had spotless floors, and clean linen was placed at the foot of each bed,” he notes.

Sham says after speaking with residents and seeing the efforts to provide safe and clean but temporary shelter, his perceptions have changed. “Policies and greater support come with awareness, and I encourage everyone to take action to support services,” he says.

Ardiles says other students are expressing similar reactions. Many were moved by the sense of pride the homeless interviewees shared about their resiliency.

“The one who stood out for me was a woman about my age, in her mid 40's, who had lived on the streets off and on since she was 13,” says Ardiles. “She shared her story of being a survivor of the residential schools. Of everyone I interviewed she was the most articulate, engaged and eager to share her story.”

Ardiles learned the woman was receiving disability benefits and struggling to find a place to rent. “She doesn’t have recent employment history or references, which is what landlords are looking for. Listening to her strength and courage, as we celebrated International Women's Day, was truly humbling.”

Ardile says participating in the count is deepening her understanding of how “the legacy of colonialism is very much alive today.”

A report on the count, which is conducted by the BC Non-Profit Housing Association, is expected later this spring.