2020 Homeless Count in Surrey

March 09, 2020
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Every three years, the BC Non-Profit Housing Association conducts a homeless count in Metro Vancouver. This week I joined a number of SFU students, faculty and staff as participants who conducted surveys to inform the 2020 Homeless Count in Surrey. More than 1,400 volunteered across the Metro Vancouver region for this important count.

Like the census, the homeless count is crucial for getting an accurate count of who is homeless, their histories including demographic profile, so that limited provincial and metro resources can be distributed to communities who are most in need. The information we gathered will also shed light on how things have changed since the last count in 2017.

All of us at SFU know that many homeless people are around our campus. We see homeless people as we walk from the Skytrain or sometimes on campus. Homelessness is a reality of a city’s fabric. But until I did the count, I hadn’t seen how homelessness exists as a world apart from us, even while part of us.

At SFU we have some amazing SFU initiatives and faculty engaging with homeless communities in significant ways. Students in the Faculty of Health Sciences Community and Health Service course, led by Paola Ardiles, are participating in these counts and focusing on socially innovative solutions, while the community outreach of others such as professor Jen Marchbank, a newly-minted SFU teaching excellence award recipient aims to make a difference.

 

In my own work I’ve co-chaired the City of Surrey’s Poverty Reduction Coalition for the past eight years and am part of the Surrey Homeless and Housing Society. Still, the homeless are around us, but they are not with us; speaking personally, rarely have I taken the time to connect with those less fortunate who are part of this community.

Well, I did on my homeless count journey.

Meet Betsy (name changed), who has been homeless in Surrey for more than eight years. She is bright and engaging, and showed a genuine knowledge of community issues and, perhaps mostly importantly, demonstrated a strong sense of community with others on the street, at one point spontaneously reaching out to give someone a beautiful hug. She spoke about helping a person blinded by bear spray move around the community, noting that streets can be dangerous for the vulnerable. While we spoke she reached out to others about meeting up in the Surrey Central library, which I duly applaud for being a community ‘livingroom’, where they can talk, support each other, and use its services to look for jobs and other opportunities.

In all, and with the help of Betsy, my colleague Nav Chima and I completed seven surveys. But beyond informing the stats, the experience showed that I have some work to do. On our route we stopped at the Surrey Urban Mission, where a homeless focus group was underway about the overdose crisis. Pizza was being served. For a fleeting moment, as I watched a man pick up a pizza box and head for the door I wondered if he was taking it. When I saw he was merely putting it in a recycling bin, I realized how assumptions and stereotypes survive and thrive when we exist as worlds apart.

In 2017 the homeless count in Surrey registered 602 homeless individuals (compared with 2,100 in the city of Vancouver) most of them living in shelters or on the streets. The 2020 count results will be known later this spring.

But beyond the numbers, the process of doing the count had a personal impact. Talking with those on the street, like Betsy, was extremely humbling, and something I will never forget. Most importantly I hope to help support efforts that are clearly needed to enable parallel universes to intersect.