If you were looking for homeless people in North Delta on March 8, you would have had a hard time finding them.
“There was no one this morning,” said Aaron Cooke, one of the volunteers working in North Delta as part of the Metro Vancouver homeless count. “Not even a sign of anyone.”
Cooke, who works for the City of Vancouver in the Downtown Eastside, has volunteered for the homeless count in the past, and went through North Delta on the 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. shift.
The sixth Metro Vancouver homeless count, put on by the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association, took place on March 7 and 8 of this year. More than 1,200 volunteers throughout the Lower Mainland visited shelters and took to the streets to look for homeless people and signs of homelessness.
The goal of the count is to provide information on the region’s homeless population: how many people are homeless, why they are homeless and how this population has changed since the last count in 2014.
This year, Cooke went out in North Delta twice – once in the morning and once in the evening – and took first-time volunteer Armando Geraldes with him as he patrolled Scott Road that night.
In the two hours they walked the route, the pair saw only one potentially homeless man. He was dressed in multiple layers of thick jackets and was carrying an empty garbage bag. As he was walked, he looked through the bushes as though on the hunt for cans and bottles.
When Cooke and Geraldes asked if he had a place to sleep tonight; he said he did. When they offered him a cigarette, a customary part of the homeless count, he said he already had four.
Although this man appeared homeless, he won’t be counted because he said he had a place to stay.
Unofficially, more people were found in South Delta, likely thanks to what Delta area count coordinator Barbara Westlake called a “magnet event” at the food bank. What that really means is homeless people using the food bank could actually be found and counted by volunteers.
“It’s really difficult to find a homeless person that doesn’t want to be found,” Westlake said. “So before we ever begin we talk about an undercount. We know we’re not catching them all. And we don’t know by how much.”
In 2014, there were an estimated 2,777 homeless people in Metro Vancouver. A regional task force put together in November 2016 estimates the number of homeless in Metro Vancouver will increase to 4,000 people this year.
“Everybody was ready for increases in this year’s count,” said Gillian McLeod, Delta’s corporate social planner, and one of the reasons for that was the growing understanding of what homelessness is.
Anyone who doesn’t have a regular place to sleep is considered homeless. If someone can’t afford to pay for regular housing but is living on friends’ couches night to night, they’re counted as homeless. The same is true for those living in a derelict boat or sleeping in a car.
SEE ALOS: The toll of Surrey streets
“It used to be you had to smell bad, not have had a shower, collecting cans – then you were homeless,” McLeod said. “Now we know, homeless people present in all ways.”
So even though Cooke and Geraldes didn’t find any homeless in North Delta, that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
That’s especially true when you consider how the homeless count organizes their numbers.
In 2014, Delta officially had 10 sheltered homeless and five unsheltered homeless.
Sheltered homeless are people who are living in temporary, emergency housing. Women and children staying in transition houses and safe houses are included under that umbrella, as are people staying overnight in jails, hospitals and rehab centres who don’t have housing normally.
But for the most part, Delta doesn’t have those services. So where were those sheltered homeless coming from?
“If they pick up a count from anywhere else in Metro Vancouver and that person identifies as coming from Delta, it’s included in the Delta count,” McLeod said.
Many homeless people living in Delta make their way to places like Surrey where services are more readily available. If those people are tallied during the homeless count, they’ll be included in Delta’s total, even though they were found in, for example, Surrey.
Nicole Read, the mayor of Maple Ridge, sees a similar trend happening in her own area.
“They need services, right?” she said. “We have a smaller community next to us, Pitt Meadows, and they don’t have services. We’re the community with the services, so people come to our community to seek [those] services.”
The official numbers for the homeless count won’t be released until April, but unofficially, increases have been found across Metro Vancouver – including in both North and South Delta.
And even though increases aren’t a good thing, McLeod can’t wait to learn what the final numbers are.
“I think it’s good – to help Mayor and council, and social service agencies – for all of us to be aware of what exists in Delta and how to advocate for services,” she said. “How to support Delta residents who are in need.
“I’m looking forward to that.”