Bernie was at home in his tent on Tuesday morning when a pair of Vancouver city councillors on a mission showed up to chat. It was a surprise.
To get to the tent, Andrea Reimer and Raymond Louie plunged onto the slippery mud upon which Bernie had placed recycling bins, a bicycle, stacks of wood and a wheelchair.
At the tent opening, Ms. Reimer made the approach. Mr. Louie held back.
First, they wanted to add 49-year-old Bernie to the annual count of Vancouver homeless.
Second, they wanted to ask him questions for a survey to add to city data on the homeless.
"It was an eyeopener," an astonished, chuckling Bernie – who declined to give his last name – said after the councillors headed off to look for other homeless people in the same area of Strathcona.
This is the week of the annual two-day Vancouver homeless count, in which more than 400 volunteers roam shelters, parks, streets, alleys and other areas of the city looking for homeless people.
It comes as Mayor Gregor Robertson admits his administration will not meet its 2015 deadline for ending street homelessness. Mr. Robertson made the pledge when he was elected in 2008, and it has been central to his political agenda.
"It's obviously a greater problem than we have been able to solve by 2015," he told reporters on Tuesday after his own two-hour shift on the count, during which he found 10 homeless people in the Commercial Drive area.
In Strathcona, Bernie said he could see some value to the count, suggesting it could produce data to ease low vacancy rates.
Bernie, who works as a cleaner, said he has been on the streets since January after becoming fed up with open drug use in the low-income hotel in which he lived. He has one complaint about his situation. "When I go to work, I've got to worry about my stuff and there's no security," he said in an interview.
On Tuesday, The Globe and Mail accompanied Ms. Reimer and Mr. Louie on their shift, which began at about 6 a.m. at the Strathcona Community Centre. The councillors were among volunteers who arrived dressed for the cool weather as they collected surveys, a map of their assigned area and treats for respondents – Werther's Original candies, and cigarettes.
Volunteers have been through a training session on how to approach the homeless respectfully to ask for co-operation. Among other things, they are encouraged not to startle people.
The councillors hit the street with the 17-question survey for those not living in shelters. A survey for those in shelters has 14 questions.
Among the questions: Why the respondent did not stay in either a shelter, safe house or transition house the previous night; whether they felt safe where they stayed; where they get money; and whether they served in the Canadian Forces. It will take city staff six to eight weeks to process the data.
George Affleck of the opposition Non-Partisan Association says his fellow NPA councillors do not participate in the counts. He said the work should be left to staff and volunteers while councillors govern.
Ms. Reimer has been involved in the count since 2008, and Mr. Louie since 2005. For years, Metro Vancouver cities counted every three years. Starting in 2010, Vancouver began its own annual count because it wanted more current, ongoing data than the three-year counts allowed.
With a map of their area, and possible hot spots flagged by staff, the two Vision Vancouver councillors set about their count briskly and boldly, striding right up to knock on camper doors and look for people on the street.
After knocking on the door of one camper, Mr. Louie took in the reaction of the occupant. "He gave us the universal gesture," he explained.
At another camper, he knocked and – loudly enough to be heard inside – said he and Ms. Reimer were with the homeless count. "It would help us set policy for city government so we can support people who are homeless."
They were invited in. After about 10 minutes, they emerged with a completed survey.
That's where they found 34-year-old Brian, who has been homeless since January and was binning when approached. "It's something new," he said, smoking one of the gift cigarettes after providing answers. He declared the councillors "came out of nowhere."
During their shift, the pair found a 60-ish woman living alone in her car and at least three people living in campers. Another man was staying in his car due to temporary financial trouble. Not all were in the mood to answer the questions.
The councillors conceded the homeless people they found confirm the challenge facing the Vision administration in light of the 2015 deadline.
Ms. Reimer said the upside of the goal is that it has helped spur action.
"I'm glad that we set the goal. There's still, obviously, a lot of work still to do.