Urban Searches and Homelessness

The SAR team was called out to search for a missing man in his 70’s with Alzheimer’s disease. This search was in an urban area of Burnaby near Central Park. Being a search and rescue team that specializes in wilderness searches, we tend to search in green spaces: parks, ravines, bushy areas. However, in an urban search for someone with some sort of dementia, the subject could be anywhere: a parkade, stairwell, bus shelter, construction site etc. They could also be on a bus, a train, or a taxi. In other words, while they are missing they could be outside the search area, and our changes of finding them very slim.

For this reason, urban searches are very frustrating. We rarely find the subject, and it feels like we’re wasting our time.

One common thread I’ve found in all my urban searches is homelessness. While we are out there in the cold and rain looking for someone who may not be able to survive a night out because of ill health or bad preparation, we will find people for whom sleeping out is a way of life.

And, according to The Tyee. the situation is getting worse. In fact Canada is the only G8 nation without a homelessness strategy. And this is not related to the economy, the homelessness numbers have been steadily increasing since 2003.

On the search this Friday, in one city park, we discovered 5 people sleeping or intending to sleep. We also discovered several recently occupied sites, and several stashes of tents, and sleeping shelters. In several locations I found stashes of possessions stuffed into hedges. A couple of guys we spotted were rooting around in the bushes, and pulled out some blankets; they asked us if we had a space blanket to spare.

The people we rescue from the wilderness are cold, wet, and near hypothermia, while those sleeping on the streets and parks of our city are in the same situation every night. The difference is, there is no rescue coming for them.

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