Getting the number on homelessness

Mishia Bakstad and Brian Desjarlais took part in the 2011 Homeless Count outside the Sally Ann soup kitchen on Wednesday. - JENNA HAUCK/ PROGRESS
Mishia Bakstad and Brian Desjarlais took part in the 2011 Homeless Count outside the Sally Ann soup kitchen on Wednesday.
— image credit: JENNA HAUCK/ PROGRESS

Volunteers with the 2011 Homeless Count head out into the streets early Wednesday morning, armed with clipboards, snacks, drinks, and friendly smiles.

They sport bright yellow buttons that read ‘Homeless Count’ in big block letters.

It’s about 11:30 a.m. on count day and folks are starting to line up for lunch.

Soft-spoken street worker Mishia Bakstad explains she has already filled out a questionnaire, as she waits for a hot lunch to be served up at the local soup kitchen attached to the Chilliwack Salvation Army Care and Share Centre.

Bakstad was happy to answer questions with a count volunteer after arriving at the emergency shelter run by Chilliwack Salvation Army the night before.

“I think the count is great. There’s so many of us,” she says about the local street population. “Often they’re full up at the shelter. They had to put up a cot for me.”

Articulate and friendly, the young woman agrees to share part of her story of trying to survive on the streets of Chilliwack for the past year.

“I was attacked twice in the past month,” she says. “Finally, I came here and had a safe night’s sleep at the shelter.”

She doesn’t sugar-coat things.

“It’s hard,” she admits. “People give you dirty looks when you’re on the street, but they don’t know what you’ve been through.

“Other times it’s like we don’t even exist. But we’re people, too. It’s not like we chose to be here.”

Fed up with working the streets to pay for her drug habit, Bakstad is now desperately trying to get into a detox facility so she can get clean and get off the streets.

“I’m phoning three times a day to see if I can get in,” she says.

If she can stay clean, there’s a camp job waiting for her up in the Yukon.

Most of local homeless advocates have said they expect to find more people living on the streets with this year’s count. About 30 volunteers with the 2011 Homeless Count spread out across Chilliwack this week, but the results won’t be announced until all the numbers are in.

“Alarmingly” there are more youth and teens living the transient lifestyle, and more homeless in general bunkering down beyond the downtown core, in Rosedale, in Yarrow and Cultus Lake, says an HIV/AIDS outreach worker with PCRS.

“I think we’ll find a higher number of homeless in Chilliwack than the last time we did the count,” said PCRS staffer Kim Lloyd, who coordinated the Chilliwack end of the 2011 Homeless Count.

Last time in 2008 there were 98 homeless people counted in Chilliwack. Those types of statistics help governments and agencies trying to establish services and facilities to serve marginalized populations.

This time there could be “twice” that many counted during the survey, including more young people, Lloyd suggested.

“The problem with counting youth is they are often part of the hidden homeless. During the day many are sleeping, since at night they have to stay vigilant for safety reasons. So they’re not in the areas we expect them to be.

“Plus some are couch surfers so we may not see them on the street.”

Chilliwack is not unique in that other regional communities are facing the same challenges with homelessness, addictions and mental health issues, she notes.

“The reason why communities are involved in doing this homeless count is to help get funding and prove there is a homeless issue.

“The biggest hurdles to finding stable housing are addictions and mental health concerns. Once they find housing they are able to move forward. That’s one of the key issues.”

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