The soup was hot and the volunteers were ready as Victoria geared up for its first Point-in-Time homeless count in three years Wednesday morning.
“We’re seeing that squeeze on households, so we’re looking at are we seeing an influx of individuals that are newly homeless, have been homeless in the last couple of years, as a result of that housing price and cost of living crunch?” said Diana Gibson, executive director at the Community Social Planning Council.
More than 200 volunteers work in teams to count and survey those living unhoused. Willing participants are paid a $10 honorarium to fill out a 23-question survey on everything from whether they were in the foster system or military to gender and racial identity.
The last count in 2020 found more than 1,500 people experiencing homelessness in the city, 35 per cent of whom were Indigenous.
“In previous counts, that high Indigenous proportion has meant we were able to get more resources for Indigenous services because we saw it in the Point-in-Time count,” said Gibson.
This year marked Shae Schwede’s first time helping with the count. She’s hoping sharing people’s stories will help reduce stigma, something she knows all too well about having been homeless as a teenager and losing her uncle, 49-year-old Chris Schwede, who had been living in a tent on Pandora Avenue.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is how beautiful these people are, everyone is struggling, but everyone’s trying too hard to help each other and help themselves and dig out of the trenches,” said Schwede.
Similar counts and surveys are taking place in Vancouver and cities across the country over the next few weeks. Advocates expect to see numbers much higher in the Downtown Eastside than last time.
“Right at the start of the pandemic, you started to see more people arriving on the DTES fresh from a new eviction looking for housing in the neighbourhood,” said Hamish Ballentine, a community organizer with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU).
In Victoria, organizers hope the addition of several supportive housing buildings since the pandemic will mean numbers are lower, but living costs and rents have jumped significantly, leaving many struggling.
“I don’t think a lot of people realize how quickly it can happen to them,” said Schwede. “Most people I know are paying over half of their income on rent easily, and you have a bad month, that’s really all it takes in this day and age.”