Volunteers ready to take on first ever street census on the homeless this weekend


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A Winnipeg agency will try to get a more accurate account of homeless people by connecting with them face to face.

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This article was published 23/10/2015 (2531 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A Winnipeg agency will try to get a more accurate account of homeless people by connecting with them face to face.

Some 300 volunteers will fan out across the inner city and downtown streets Sunday evening through Monday evening to put survey questions directly to homeless people.

Training a spotlight on the homeless by talking with them is the brainchild of the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg.

Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press files Clients wait in the Main Street Project for mats to be laid out on the floor to sleep on a cold January night in 2014.

“When you see numbers on the homeless, those are usually estimates from shelters. We don’t usually go out there. We don’t go to the three shelters in the city. We’ve never done this scale of a project before where we try to identify those people who are sleeping outside and those people who are couch-surfing,” said Christina Maes Nino, council spokeswoman for the project.

The most common estimates of homelessness in Winnipeg — 2,500 in 2011 — are drawn from calls to shelters, and expanded with information from various agencies that serve youth, women, families and single people without homes.

There are 250 emergency beds in the city’s three shelters.

The goal is to compile a census that’s more thorough and to add a qualitative component beyond a simple head count.

Volunteers were put through a six-hour orientation on how to approach people without scaring them off and how to encourage them to share their stories.

After a news conference Sunday evening at the Thunderbird House, volunteers will head to the city’s three shelters and ask people to take part in the survey.

The next day they will move on to 40 locations where homeless people gather to eat, visit and seek shelter.

Monday evening, teams of three will follow 27 selected routes along Portage Avenue and inner-city side streets, stopping everyone they see and asking them to answer a few questions. The surveys take anywhere from five minutes to 15 minutes.

Questions are carefully crafted: a woman can’t be asked to disclose whether her partner at home beats her and be expected to answer honestly. So one question to open up the scenario as a possibility asks instead whether the woman has a place to stay every night, if she lives with her boyfriend.

The project relies on the York University definition of homelessness as designed by its research centre, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.

The definition covers a range of situations, from the conventional yardstick of people who sleep under bridges and on riverbanks to people who stay at homeless shelters.

The definition also includes people who couch-surf, because they have no permanent place to stay, and women in women’s shelters.

“It’s going to be a real challenge for volunteers because there are boxes to check off in the survey, but people don’t fit into boxes. We’ve been preparing volunteers to listen carefully and we’re collecting a few stories from them afterward,” Maes Nino said. “People on the street are most often there because of some trauma.”

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