Counting and connecting

Gentle touch found best in homeless count

While the annual homelessness count provides a useful number to rally resources, the act of meeting and speaking with homeless people can be equally important.

That was a key message conveyed by volunteers who turned out Friday to walk the city and gather an estimate on the extent of homelessness.

"It's looking much the same as the last couple of years," said Ken Salter, street outreach worker with the ASK Wellness Centre. "I'm hoping the number can maybe support our housing initiative and show some kind of dent in the situation."

About 70 volunteers - fewer than initially hoped - took to the streets in the morning and reunited behind the centre for a barbecue lunch before heading back into the field.

The hard number provided by the count makes applying for government funding a lot more effective. The figures also represent a compelling argument to government.

If the homeless count has been static - hovering around 100 for the past two years - it's because new arrivals have offset the number of people who have found suitable housing.

Not that long ago, Darian Rohel was one of those new arrivals. He was homeless for two years on the streets of Calgary, living with addiction. Now clean and sober, he was giving back Friday as a volunteer.

"I had no intention of coming off the street," Rohel said. "My habit was keeping me there."

Another volunteer counter, Jesse Jones, was also homeless and addicted in the past. She wanted to come in from the cold but couldn't find housing until she cleaned up.

"I hung out by myself," she recalled. "I didn't want to be homeless. I couldn't even get in a women's shelter. Nobody wants you around because you're an addict."

Addiction and mental health are two of the primary obstacles to housing the homeless, and yet housing is a critical first step to addressing addiction and mental health.

That Catch-22 means direct personal contact with individuals can be a critical first step in overcoming barriers.

Edith Farrell, a mental health program co-ordinator who works at Henry Leland House, the city's newest housing for marginalized persons, hears the stories of street survival firsthand. Proper diet, exercise and reintegration into society are key, she noted as she led a group of volunteers on the count.

Homeless and marginalized people often despair of their circumstances but are handicapped by a sense of hopelessness. Even a smile can make a difference.

"Just to acknowledge them as human beings," Farrell said. "That's one thing I hear from homeless people: 'Treat us as human beings.' "

Farrell believes the homeless action plan now in place, with a comprehensive approach to support services in tandem with housing, can make a difference in the long run.

"I do see a difference. If we can get people into programs for diet and exercise, and involved in the community. . . ."

"There's a lot of help out there, but you've got to be willing to help yourself," Jones said.

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