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Metro Vancouver homelessness count casts a wider net

Bill doesn't receive many visitors.

His home - a battered green and orange tent tucked in a small clearing in the deep woods of Stanley Park - is off the beaten track. The site is sparsely decorated, just a scattered pile of half-filled garbage bags and a pair of jeans hanging from a branch. He's been camped here a year, he says, though he's been a resident of the park for many of his 30 years living rough.

Once a week, he hikes into the city for supplies, but otherwise sees very few people. He prefers it that way, he says. "You want to stay away from all that organized crap. Camping seems good to me."

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Most days, Bill, who prefers not to give his last name, would be left to enjoy his time alone in the woods. But on Wednesday he was one of thousands of people that Metro Vancouver hoped to survey, as the region sent 700 volunteers into city streets and parks to conduct its fourth homeless count this decade.

The regional tally has happened every three years since 2002, and each has incorporated lessons learned from the last, said Alice Sundberg, co-chair of the Regional Steering Committee on Homelessness, the group - along with the Aboriginal Homelessness Steering Committee - behind the day's activities.

One of those lessons was to include a count of those who had checked into hospitals, treatment centres, detention centres and other transitional facilities with no fixed address. For the first time, institutional staff helped counters to survey that population, which in previous years had been missed because those key staff relationships were not in place, Ms. Sundberg said.

Also for the first time - not only in British Columbia, but in all of Canada - organizers implemented a special strategy aimed at homeless youth, a demographic of 16- to 24-year-olds thought to be undercounted in the past.

"Youth don't tend to identify themselves as homeless," Ms. Sundberg said. "Often they're drifting - couch-surfing or trading sex for a place to sleep, so can be difficult to count."

To reach homeless youth, the RSCH brought in Natasha Van Borek. As the youth count co-ordinator, Ms. Van Borek was tasked with overseeing 200 volunteers, all of whom were recruited specifically because they work daily with homeless youth.

"With those relationships already in place, we knew where to go to find the youth, and how to bring them in to take part in the survey," Ms. Van Borek said. "So we do expect those numbers to be more accurate this year."

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Over in Burnaby, Wanda Mulholland was organizing the dispatch of 93 volunteer counters to 53 known homeless sites across that city from her command centre at the Gordon Presbyterian Church.

The 2008 count showed a 110-per-cent increase in homelessness in Burnaby, Ms. Mulholland said. Although that number partly reflects a growing volunteer base working in the suburbs (and the more volunteers, the more homeless people they are likely to find), it's an important statistic when considering the bigger picture.

"The Downtown Eastside has the largest number of homeless, and the largest number of services. But we're trying to show people that we here in Burnaby have issues too," she said. "So part of this is recognizing that we have a problem. The other part is showing that we're committed to finding a solution to that problem."

There are no shelters for Burnaby's homeless - a population that Ms. Mulholland puts at about 250. Her hope is that with good data, the steering committee can advocate for more funding and better services.

It's a hope she shares with Ms. Van Borek and Ms. Sundberg, who said that although the surveys are only snapshots of the homelessness situation in Metro Vancouver, the data will show important trends in demographics and gaps in services.

Preliminary results are expected in April.

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