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Homeless by any other name is still a tragedy

I've never been able to understand the breathless excitement with which the city embarks on its annual homeless count in March. I almost imagine it as something of a sport: A contest between well meaning but perhaps inappropriately enthusiastic volunteers, weather-proofed clipboards in hand. "Found one over here!" "Me too!"

It was a cross between an early Easter egg hunt and the search for the Passover Afikomen, the reward being each living, breathing human huddled in a doorway that you could add to the tally.

I couldn't be more wrong.

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"I hate it. I hate having to do this," Judy Graves, the City of Vancouver advocate for homeless people, told me in an interview this week. "My personal belief is that the number should be zero."

This year's count took place from Tuesday at midnight to midnight on Wednesday, a 24-hour period marked by an Environment Canada rainfall warning.

I expected that might artificially bring the numbers down as homeless people sought shelter anywhere they could. Wrong again. Ms. Graves says a break in the rain during daylight hours means this year's numbers ought to be accurate.

Preliminary numbers will be released in three weeks, according to the city, but Ms. Graves says that, based on her experience, she believes fewer people were outside on the street this year than in past years.

"What I saw is that there appears to be a visible decrease," she said. "Certainly where we were, we were going past doorways and up an alley that used to be almost wall-to-wall sleepers early in the morning, and we found five people, and two of them were moving inside." By "moving inside" Ms. Graves means to a permanent home, rather than a shelter.

Vancouver began the annual homeless count in 2010. Metro Vancouver has conducted a regional count every three years since 2002.

Figures show a steady increase in the total number of homeless people in the City of Vancouver, to 1,602 in 2012 from 1,364 in 2005. The numbers also show that the vast majority of homeless people are no longer sleeping on the street, but in emergency shelters. In 2005, about half the number of homeless people counted were in shelters. Last year, of the 1,602 homeless people counted, 1,296 were enumerated in shelters.

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Ms. Graves has no doubt that there's a direct correlation between the increase in the numbers of shelter beds and the decline in the number of visibly homeless people.

When Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson was first elected in 2008, he pledged to end homelessness in the city by 2015. That promise was later quietly amended to "end street homelessness by 2015." The amendment was well documented by Mr. Robertson's critics.

There is, needless to say, a big difference.

According to the city's numbers, Vancouver now has 638 permanent year-round shelter beds. In addition, there are 200 Homeless Emergency Action Team or HEAT shelters, and 160 beds in temporary, cold/wet weather shelters that are open in winter.

Let's be clear: putting someone on a bunk bed for the night in a repurposed government office or a warehouse building does not end homelessness. Advocates argue, though, that it's a start, and that getting people into shelters brings them into contact with services that might eventually lead them to permanent housing, if and when it becomes available. Homeless people, you see, aren't being warehoused – they're being transitioned.

There's no doubt that, on nights like the ones we saw this week, with the rain coming down in buckets, being warm and dry – even in a shelter – is preferable to being on the street. But it's far from a fix.

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Why has the number of shelter beds doubled since 2005? Why did it peak in 2010? Maybe attempting to hide homelessness from our Olympic visitors had something to do with it. We didn't want to be embarrassed. To be more generous, maybe over the past decade, we've decided that the number of people living on the street was unacceptable and that the very least we could do was offer them someplace warm.

Can we now decide that the number of people sleeping in emergency shelters is every bit as unacceptable? Let's get rid of the word "sheltered" and just call it what it is.

Let's not let anyone get away with waving a banner in 2015 that says "mission accomplished."

Stephen Quinn is the Host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver. @cbcstephenquinn

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