A group of five volunteers arrive at the Elgin Heritage Park docks Wednesday morning after searching for anchored boats on the Nicomekl River.

Homeless count records people living on South Surrey river

A group of volunteers searched for anchored boats on the Nicomekl River for the 2017 Homeless Count.

In an effort to get a point-in-time snapshot of the number of homeless people living in Metro Vancouver, volunteers took to the streets – and the water – to survey those who fall within the definition.

But for some, the definition of ‘homeless’ can be complicated.

A group of five volunteers took a vessel on the Nicomekl River early Wednesday to search for permanent residents living in anchored boats.  White Rock Sea Tours & Whale Watching owner, Andrew Newman, captained the trip and volunteered one of his boats.

The crew left Elgin Heritage Park shortly before 7 a.m. and cruised the river east, turning around just before the Elgin Road dam.

Newman said the route was targeted because there’s an area just north of the Nico-Wynd Golf Course where people are known to live on their boats year-round.

The area has a couple of different names, but one given by the boaters is ‘The Hole,’ due to the depth of the water in this section of the river.

The volunteer group encountered about 15 vessels anchored along the route, but only found three people.

A challenge with the waterway count is that some of the individuals don’t view themselves as homeless, said volunteer Emily Morales.

“They don’t relate to that term. Even if they’re not living in adequate living conditions,” she said.

For some questions, Morales said, the response was, “I don’t know how to answer that.”

Count volunteer Jennifer Lindsay said it was the first time a count took place on the water, and she questioned how they could properly define the boaters’ situations.

“We were kind of talking about it in terms of, often, people in fact own their own vessels so in a sense they feel they own property,” she said.

People living on anchored boats are eligible for the survey, unless they pay rent for a place on land. Residents living on moored boats are eligible for the survey if they do not pay moorage fees, or if they’re not provided with water, electricity and access to a shower/bathroom.

“It takes a lot of effort to take care of the boats. I think we’re comparing apples to oranges in a sense. They are pretty hearty people that are living out here on a boat. Maybe some of the issues are the same,” Lindsay said.

Newman, who has been navigating the waters since 2004, said the first man they surveyed gave them a clearer sense of the number of people living in boats.

“He said there are 15 people that are living on their boats, and… 10 of them, he said, are low-income,” Newman noted.

Matt Thomson, research manager for the count, said the waterway component is a pilot project and an evaluation will be conducted after the count is complete.

“We err on the side of caution, identifying in our approach to all live-aboard individuals that the survey is part of the homeless count and has to do with housing and service supports,” Thomson said in an email. “We let them opt in or out of the survey. This is because we recognize in some areas, live-aboards are choosing to live on their boats and may be fully employed and not require support services.”

More than 1,200 volunteers dispersed throughout Metro Vancouver for the 2017 count March 7-8.

The 2014 Homeless Count found an estimated 2,777 homeless people in Metro Vancouver, with four in White Rock and 404 in Surrey.

Members of the Peninsula Homeless to Housing Task Force say that count underestimated the number of homeless people in the region.

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