Calgary Homeless Foundation organizes first 'point-in-time count' of homeless since 2008
It was -34 C in Calgary — weather cold enough to make your bones ache and your skin burn.
In a brightly lit downtown conference room were 166 people — most bundled in layers of wool scarves and vibrantly coloured parkas — willing to walk the streets for the next three hours and search for Calgary's "rough-sleepers"; homeless folks left to sleep outside in life-threatening sub-zero temperatures.
This evening was the "point-in-time count" organized by the Calgary Homeless Foundation. Teams of volunteers searched through 42 zones of the city's bridges, parks, alleyways and bushes — any place likely to hide a human being living on the street away from the cold.
The last time this count took place was in 2008. At that time, it was found that 4,060 people were homeless in Calgary. Results of this year's count will be available in the next few weeks.
"The most important thing we can do tonight is make sure they are safe," said Tim Richter, president and CEO of the foundation to a large crowd peppered with bright-eyed university students, police officers and paramedics. "We want to make sure we get people counted. We want to give them a survey if they are willing to answer questions.
"If they want to get into a shelter, let's offer that."
The Calgary Homeless Foundation instructed all volunteer teams to first offer any homeless person a gift: cigarettes, Tim Hortons gift cards (donated by the company), blankets and mittens, said Katrina Milaney, manager of research and policy at the foundation. The homeless man or woman was under no obligation to answer questions on each volunteer's survey, nor were they forced to accept a ride to one of Calgary's shelters; the gifts were simply an offering of respect — no strings attached.
Also stressed were the various safety precautions each volunteer must stay mindful of while on the search for homeless encampments. These measures included watching for exposed, dirty needles and the possibility of finding oneself smack-dab in the centre of a makeshift bathroom.
"Please remember that the people out there view the camps as their home," said Angie Bailey, City of Calgary bylaw representative, adding that volunteers are encouraged to treat the living spaces of the homeless as they would want someone to treat their own dwellings.
The final person to speak before the crowd headed out for the search was Scott Calling Last of Alberta Health Services. His compassion was palpable — in fact, the room itself seemed to be full of people who pulsated with empathy and concern for the most marginalized of populations.
"Street people out there live with lots of stigma and judgement," Calling Last emphasized, as he prepared the crowd for the night's upcoming interactions.
"We (in the room) have our beliefs. We'll find people tonight living their own belief-system.
"So let's not be judgmental of what that belief system is. Let's just accept them for who they are."
Thom Dennett, a policy studies major at the University of Calgary, said he came out in the freezing temperatures to volunteer his time and get a glimpse of homelessness from "the ground level."
"I've been interested in policies around homeless populations," he said. "It is such an important issue. Its something that we've been dealing with for hundreds of years, but still haven't come up with a solution for it."
Dennett paused for a moment before asking what must be a common question for anyone who has never had to question a roof and a blanket.
"I'm so curious about we are going to find when we get out there. Do people make it out there in -30 C?
"How do you do that?"
- By MELISSA MOLLOY