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Harmonized homelessness count.

EDMONTON

By the end of the year, the seven largest cities in the province will have a better understanding of what homelessness looks like in their communities thanks to a coordinated count which took place mid-October.

"The 7 Cities are playing a leadership role within the province of Alberta," said Susan McGee, chief executive director with Homeward Trust Edmonton. "We work as 7 Cities in housing and supports in a very collaborative way.... There's a lot of shared initiatives we undertake as 7 Cities."

The effort is part of a broader initiative led by the 7 Cities on Housing and Homelessness in collaboration with the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness to develop a harmonized approach to homeless counts nationally. Alberta is the first jurisdiction to implement this methodology.

Joining Homeward Trust Edmonton on the 7 Cities are the Calgary Homeless Foundation, Medicine Hat Community Housing Society, the cities of Grande Prairie, Lethbridge and Red Deer, and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.

The point-of-time count is important, says Louise Gallagher, communications manager with the Calgary Homeless Foundation.

"It gives a provincial-wide benchmark," she said, noting that Calgary had a count in January but recounted in October. "All seven cities are working on this unified vision of ending homelessness."

The standardized counting at a set time will also allow for year-to-year comparisons and enable communities to track trends, says McGee.

The cities shared common areas where counts took place: shelters (both specifically for the homeless and women's shelters), park areas, along the rivers, downtown cores, metro trains and transit centres. Accommodations such as sleeping in cars, garages or abandoned buildings, and couch surfing were also noted.

While volunteer counters followed a standardized questionnaire and methodology, there were also follow-up questions added to address the particular situation of each city.

The counts provide valuable information, says Cassie Bowering, program coordinator for Neighbourhood and Community Development branch with Wood Buffalo Regional Municipality.

"This is so we can know our demographics and the number of homeless, and then we can develop programming and know what the needs of our community are from there," she said.

In Wood Buffalo Regional Municipality the count took place in Fort McMurray, the largest urban community in the region. The boom economy has attracted workers from across the country and around the world.

"We're a very multicultural community. Homelessness is not specific to one demographic or culture," she said. People travel to the region for jobs but do not expect the high cost of living or the lack of accommodations. "Many use our shelter services to get back on their feet."

Wood Buffalo's 2012 homeless count saw a 40.6 per cent decrease from 2010, but Bowering says she is not certain if the downward swing is a trend that will be reflected in 2014.

Calgary has a higher homeless count than most cities, says Gallagher, because the city has shelter beds to accommodate. While homelessness continues to be predominantly male, there is a disturbing growing trend.

"We are seeing a rise in family homelessness," she said.

Many people are making the move to Calgary because of job availability.

"The challenge with that is for those on the margins, who come without a plan on how they're going to survive, how they're going to find housing, it is very difficult," said Gallagher.

The January 2014 count found 10.8 per cent increase in homelessness in Calgary compared to January 2012.

McGee anticipates this year's count in Edmonton may mirror 2008 when there was a spike in homelessness. Counts in 2010 and 2012 saw a downward trend.

"We're in a similar environment we were in in 2008 with a strong economy, high rents, low vacancy and it has impacted certainly our work and efforts in homelessness .and I don't know how that's going to show up in the count," she said.

McGee says based on Edmonton's location as a portal to the north and in close proximity to a number of First Nations, the Aboriginal homeless count is high. In 2012, 46 per cent of the city's homeless were Aboriginal although that demographic accounts for only 5.3 per cent of the city's population.

Homelessness is not restricted to the larger cities.

In 2013, the Camrose Open Door and the Alberta Centre for Sustainable Rural Communities undertook a needs assessment in the Camrose area and found that 16-24 year olds who were unable to live with their parents, were increasingly vulnerable to homelessness due to a lack of affordable housing.

"Many people assume that because they don't see people on the streets that there's no homelessness in rural Alberta," Dr. Lars K. Hallstrom, executive director with ACSRC said in an online article posted by Augustana Campus, University of Alberta. "This is, unfortunately, very wrong."

By Shari Narine

Sweetgrass Contributing Editor
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Author:Narine, Shari
Publication:Alberta Sweetgrass
Geographic Code:1CALB
Date:Nov 1, 2014
Words:799
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