When Judy Graves used to carry out homeless counts in the Davie Village area, she would typically find someone sleeping in every doorway.
This morning, the Vancouver homeless advocate encountered five people in the same stretch.
“For me, to walk past doorways that used to have somebody living in them, and to know that the person that used to live in that doorway is housed, and I could go and knock on their door, I know where they are—makes me very happy,” Graves told reporters after surveying homeless people as part of Vancouver's annual count today (March 13).
About 300 volunteers are helping with the study, which began Tuesday night and concludes at midnight. While preliminary numbers won’t be released for at least a couple of weeks, both Graves and Mayor Gregor Robertson say they’ve observed a decrease in the number of people sleeping on the streets over recent years.
“It’s too early to say until we crunch the numbers, but anecdotally, there’s certainly far fewer people than there were a few years ago,” Robertson said after joining Graves on her count in Davie Village. “The question is, compared to last year, did we make headway, and hopefully we did.”
Last year, the count showed an increase in the number of people sleeping on the streets, from 154 in 2011 to 306 in 2012, while the amount of people living in shelters decreased from 1,427 to 1,296. The city attributes the increase in unsheltered homeless to fewer provincially funded shelter beds at the time of the 2012 count. The annual March survey is conducted during a time of year when temporary winter response shelters are in operation.
Robertson said this year the city has seen "good success" with shelters, despite community opposition from Yaletown residents before a winter facility was opened on Seymour Street. He remains confident the city can achieve its goal of ending street homelessness by 2015.
“It’s going to take a real push over these next two years,” he told reporters. “We’re going to have to have the provincial government really stepping up, continuing to provide support for shelters and permanent housing…if we don’t get the investment right across the whole region, we’re ultimately not going to solve it in Vancouver, because people move around the region."
Graves said she thinks it’s a “very realistic goal” to have everybody housed by 2015.
“It’s not rocket science,” she remarked. “It’s something that I’ve been doing personally and many other people have been doing for the past 20 years, is just taking people from the sidewalk and moving them into housing. It really is as simple as anybody would think it is—what we need is the housing. You can’t house people if there’s nowhere to put them."
Graves, who is conducting her last homeless count before retiring this May, admitted the annual exercise is not a part of her job that she likes.
“I would far rather be out in the street housing people, rather than waking them up to count them,” she said.
The fact that a survey of the number of people sleeping in shelters and on sidewalks around the city is still needed saddens the advocate.
“I would really like to see everybody inside,” she stated.
The total of 1,601 homeless counted in 2012 compared to 421 unsheltered and 1,294 sheltered homeless surveyed in 2010. In 2008, 811 people were counted on the streets and 765 in shelters. The City of Vancouver began conducting annual homeless counts in 2010. Metro Vancouver does a regional count of the homeless population every three years.
According to Graves, progress in moving people indoors over recent years can be judged by observing the number of people sleeping on the sidewalks.
“I think all of us measure the success just by walking through the streets and remembering what it looked like five years ago, and we can see that we’re making a difference,” she stated.
“For me, I’m a little bit intolerant,” she added. “I think there’s no excuse for not having it completed by now. I do believe that this should be done in Vancouver by 2015.”
The 24-hour homeless count, which began Tuesday night, will conclude at midnight. Preliminary numbers are expected to be released in the upcoming weeks, and a full report, including data on age, gender, income and health concerns, will be issued by the summer.