KAMLOOPS – Every year a group of volunteers brave the fall cold, wake up at the crack of dawn and ply themselves with hot coffee to conduct the city’s homeless count.
They walk the back alleys, they search under bridges and they scour the beaches to hand out backpacks full of supplies and count the homeless people of Kamloops.
Ken Salter, an outreach worker at ASK Wellness, has spearheaded the count for roughly a decade and says every year the count comes to about 100 people.
“Give or take five. It’s been 95 to 105 for the last ten years,” Salter says.
The reason for the count is twofold. Firstly, volunteers gather statistics about the homeless population in Kamloops to eventually lobby different levels of government for funding. But Salter believes the more important reason is awareness.
“They’re part of the community; they’re not going anywhere,” he says, adding the volunteers often tell friends and family about their experiences while on the count.
Salter says a volunteer last year told him she walked by the same alleyway every day to work and never realized anyone lived there.
Leanne Power is an ASK employee who joined volunteer Chico on his first count. Chico is celebrating a milestone of sorts today as it's been nine years since he was last on the streets.
Chico says he lived primarily in Pioneer Park in the brush by the river, and out of the ten or so people he used to camp, with only three are still alive. He figures they most likely died due to drug and alcohol abuse.
When asked what a homeless person looks like Power says, “I don’t know how to answer that question.”
“It’s like asking a girl if she’s pregnant," volunteer Karly Bradley says.
Power agrees saying it’s wrong to assume something about a person.
She says often times it's the last person you’d expect who lives on the street. For instance, the people who get a backpack during the count will be sporting donated Marino wool sweaters and scarves.
Power and her group of volunteers is assigned to a neighbourhood east of Tranquille Road around the Kamloops Food Bank and the St. Vincent De Paul Society, or as many who receive breakfast there every morning call it, St. Vinny’s.
Outside St. Vinny’s, the group meet Damian; a young man who struggles with both addictions and mental illness. He’s been living on the streets of Kamloops for roughly six months, but off and on in other cities for years.
The group have a short list of questions they ask of every street-involved person they encounter including why they are homeless.
“I believe I can’t get off opiates,” he tells Power.
He is wary of having his picture taken and says, “I’ve kinda been a bad boy lately.”
Damian explains he recently broke into lockers at the Vancouver bus depot, hoping to find anything of value. He found a backpack full of clothes, he guessed belonged to a fellow homeless person.
“I probably stole from some guy as poor as me,” he says, pausing, then wringing his hands. He says he feels guilty for taking the bag, but often finds himself without a choice.
“You do what you have to.”
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