Building a picture of Hamilton's homeless, block by block

Dozens of volunteers farmed out across Hamilton on Monday to help compile a picture of Hamilton's homeless population.

Volunteers brave a cold, early morning for Hamilton's point-in-time count of its homeless population

Mary Ellen Robb, left, and Julia Woodhall-Melnik take note of their assignment early Monday morning to walk every block from Main to Hunter, James to Catharine streets, counting and surveying people who are homeless. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

It was dark and cold around 5:30 a.m. Monday morning as dozens of volunteers showed up at the First Pilgrim United Church in central Hamilton. They were there to pick up maps and assignments for walking the urban core, surveying people who are homeless.

The city is doing a "point-in-time count" of its homeless population, which will contribute to a national picture comparing the results from Hamilton and other cities. There are teams assigned through the city, including its rural and suburban areas.

CBC Hamilton tagged along with a team of three volunteers, surveying from Main to Hunter streets, and James to Catharine. They were Terry Robb and Mary Ellen Robb, an ironworker and a photographer, respectively, and they were teamed up with Julia Woodhall-Melnik, a post-doctoral fellow at the McMaster University department of Health, Aging and Society.

The shift began right around 6 a.m., and finished by about 8:34 a.m.

In that time, they took note of 13 people – a mix of those who identified themselves as being homeless, some who appeared to be carrying a significant number of belongings early in the morning and others who a quick conversation revealed had unstable housing.

Of those, they completed four surveys with people who don't have a stable place of their own to sleep. The team didn't see anyone actually sleeping outside.

Here's how the morning went.

The team set off. 

They peered down an alley. A man walked past wearing a backpack.

As they'd pass people walking on the street, the team stopped to exchange looks –  What do you think? Homeless?

In a parking lot, they chatted with two men wearing hoodies. It turned out they were just waiting to be picked up in a truck for a temp labour job.

"It challenged my preconceived notions," Woodhall-Melnik said later. "Like, how am I judging who's homeless?"

Most times, they'd just stop whoever they saw and say they were doing a survey about housing needs in the city. Several people revealed they had a place to sleep at night that wasn't a friend's couch or a shelter.

By 7 a.m., Woodhall-Melnik said she was learning about more than just the homeless population.

"So far this has made me feel bad for the working poor," she said.

Then they found Ian Baillie, a man that Woodhall-Melnik recognized from her previous homelessness experience. He'd participated in the survey effort on Sunday, but helped introduce the team to other men outside the Tim Hortons who also are staying at the YMCA at the moment.

Baillie, 59, said he'd had some trouble with a previous housing placement – he has a prosthetic leg and uses a scooter to get around. But a place he was living was a third-floor walkup, which became too challenging. He also said he'd been attacked while living in Stoney Creek.

Now he's staying at the Y shelter, hoping the "homeless" classification can help him get placed in housing of his own again.

And he told CBC Hamilton he had been happy to participate in the survey on Sunday.

"I want to be heard, is actually how I see it," he said. "It's like voting – if you're going to criticize the system … "

Baillie works odd jobs when he can. He was the Santa at Eastgate Square mall last year, he said. He worked for Elections Canada during the fall the election. He's hoping to get a job with the census effort.

"I wake up every day," he said. "I'm happy. I'm thankful."

One of the volunteers approached a man nearby who was willing to do the survey.

Lamonte McGill goes by "Monty" and has been in Hamilton for six years, he said.

After he did the survey, he shared with a CBC reporter some details about his life. 

He moved here from Collingwood to escape a bad crowd and kick cocaine. McGill's late father, who he said was First Nations, had lived in Hamilton.

A friend he was splitting rent with bailed on the lease and left him with too many expenses.

McGill, 44, said he sold a TV (he still remembers its specs), an Xbox and a set of dining furniture but still ended up out of a place to live.

He's slept outside, in parking lots, in a park, under a tarp, but now he sleeps at the Y.

He doesn't do cocaine anymore, he said. "I've seen a lot of my friends die."

And, he said, he hasn't been in jail for 11 years.

"I've seen me go a couple of days without eating," he said. "As long as I have coffee and cigarettes."

He's hoping to get help finding a place to live that he can afford with his disability support cheques, but said he's wary of getting his hopes up because he's been disappointed by promises of housing over the last two years.

McGill said he had a "mild stroke" last year.

"I just take it day by day," he said.

After finding two more people willing to chat and complete the survey near the Tim Hortons, and noting a few more who declined the survey, the team moved on.

As they made their way back along the end of their mapped route, the three talked about what they'd noticed.

The Robbs had done a shift of surveys at the Notre Dame youth shelter on Sunday, and said it was an interesting dichotomy to complete surveys with young people inside a shelter one day, and try to determine who's homeless out on the street the next.

But there were some similarities.

"Everybody's been so gracious, and forthcoming in interviews," said Mary Ellen Robb. "Nothing's worse than being an invisible person."

The Robbs had found out about the count when they put some bags together with toiletries, gloves and socks for people who are homeless in Hamilton and heard about the homelessness count.

They said they'd seen comments on news stories and on social media from people that spurred them to act.

"I got really tired of the 'Oh, you're helping the Syrian refugees; you're not helping the homeless,'" said Mary Ellen Robb as the team tallied their numbers. "We just help people who need help."

The three dropped off their completed surveys and maps, ready for a break and a chance to warm up before heading out for another shift of interviews Monday afternoon.

The city plans to release the results of the surveys and the count on March 4.

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca | @kellyrbennett


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