As I have noted in past blogs, one of the most exciting things about my 50 Fabulous Feats is the number of interesting opportunities available to me in my own community. Having a more open and curious approach to local events means that when I come across an activity that might be a possible feat, my first reaction is “I’m in.” So, when I saw an notice from the Niagara Region asking for volunteers to participate in conducting a survey called “Niagara Counts,” I wanted to find out more.
Through clicking on the site link, I discovered that the survey would be a point-in-time count that would provide a snapshot of homelessness in Niagara. As part of a national strategy to help determine the extent of homelessness over 30 communities across Canada, Niagara Counts represented the first time this survey would be conducted in our community. By finding out more information about individuals who are living on the streets or in emergency shelters, it is hoped that we will learn more about people who are affected by homelessness and what their needs are in order to better serve them and, ultimately, eliminate homelessness.
Niagara’s first point-in-time count was scheduled for April 5, 2016 and the Niagara Region was recruiting volunteers to assist with the process. As I read more, I learned that they were seeking volunteers to participate in the outside count; teams of 3 would be dispatched at a particular location where, between the hours of 5 – 8 in the morning, they would walk their route and survey individuals who agreed to participate, and count those who refused, or were not able to do so (for example, asleep or otherwise unable). It was noted that each team would be assigned a team lead who had experience working with people who are homeless.
Although I did not have experience working with individuals who were homeless, I felt that this survey was important for our region and decided to participate. I filled out the volunteer form and shortly received an email confirmation and notice of a training session and orientation. There were about 20 people at this session where members of the organizing group from the Niagara Region provided a very comprehensive walk through of the process and a brief safety training. The final portion of the meeting had us connecting with our other team members and role playing the survey administration in order for us to become more comfortable with the questions before the day of the count.
I made sure to reread the survey and the volunteer guide again the night before the count to make sure I was as prepared as possible. I then set my alarm for 3:30 a.m. and tried to go to sleep early. It took me some time to get to sleep, and I awoke several times during the night, each time checking the clock to make sure I hadn’t slept through the alarm. I got up just ahead of the actual 3:30 alarm, and was struck by how very dark it was outside. It had turned cold over the last week, so I bundled up in extra layers knowing that we would be spending the majority of the shift outside and headed out to the check-in point for Niagara Falls. I met one of my team members in the parking lot and we entered together, signed in, picked up our survey materials, connected with our team lead, and soon we all made our way out to our various survey locations.
We were assigned to Lundy’s Lane between Dorchester and Drummond. Clipboards in hand and bright orange Niagara Counts backpacks in place, we began to walk our route. In the time leading up to the count day, there had been hints of spring, but on this morning, snow covered the ground and it was cold. As a result, there were few people on the street, especially at 5 a.m. We walked the route several times, noting a few people whom we saw from a distance on our tally sheet. About half way through our shift, we entered the McDonalds to warm up with a coffee. Inside we noticed a number of people who may have been homeless. On the one hand, I was glad to know that people were not outside on such a cold morning, but, because we could not conduct the survey inside establishments, their possible information was not available to us. I was glad to know that in addition to the outside count, there was another group of individuals who were also conducting the survey in shelters.
Our time went by relatively quickly as the three of us chatted during the trek up and down the street. Our team lead told us that she and her daughter had experienced homelessness after arriving in Niagara Falls. While she was thankful for the services that found them a place to live relatively quickly, she lamented that others she had met were not as fortunate.
Around 7:30 we decided we had collected all that we could on our route and returned to the checkpoint to return our survey materials and sign out. While we had not had the opportunity to interview anyone, we had contributed to the information that would be used to better understand homelessness and, hopefully, be used to develop appropriate programming to support these individuals.
At home just after 8 a.m. I had a hot bath and thawed out my frozen body. I reflected on the fact that I had been outside only a short period of time, and that individuals without secure housing might spend not just hours, but days, weeks, months sleeping “rough”. After a hot tea and toast, I climbed back into my warm bed where my dogs still lay sleeping soundly. I realized how privileged I was to have all of these luxuries, and the tenuous nature of basic human safety and security. A follow up email received the next day thanks us for our assistance and assured us that once results were summarized, we would be invited to a debriefing on the findings. While my feat may be completed, the real work is yet to be done.
Next up: Life coaching certification