FOCUS: A tale of two shelters, from Surrey to Vancouver

FOCUS: A tale of two shelters, from Surrey to Vancouver

Walking past Surrey’s Gateway 40-bed barrierfree homeless shelter, it’s impossible to miss. After all, it’s on what’s nicknamed "the strip," also known as 135A Street.

Street people gather outside on the street by the dozen. Shopping carts, belongings and bikes litter the sidewalks.

A trip to the Yukon Shelter in Vancouver is starkly different. During a visit earlier this month, no one could be seen outside. No shopping carts were visible. Even once in the lobby of the building, it was not apparent the building was in fact a homeless shelter.

The difference is intentional, as Yukon was a purposebuilt shelter, including many features that Surrey lacks. Courtyards and balconies were placed in the centre of the building to keep people from loitering out front. It boasts more than 70 shelter beds and 37 transitional housing units, and a lounge area for people to spend time in during the day. It has a commercial kitchen, a bed bug sauna, as well as space to hold community events and birthday celebrations.

Of the 70 plus shelter beds at Yukon, 26 are "dormitory" style bunk beds, which is all Surrey has. The rest of Yukon’s shelter beds are in private rooms, able to hold one to three people, are pet-friendly and include a private locker as well as a sink and mirror.

And in the Vancouver shelter, people can stay within the facility during the day, so they’re not hanging out on the streets and coming back to line up for a bed at night like in Surrey.

Replacement of the existing emergency shelter in Surrey is identified as an immediate priority for action in the city’s Master Plan for Housing the Homeless.

A report to council earlier this year acknowledged the Yukon Shelter as a successful example of a mixed-facility, such as Surrey hopes to see.

The Now was given a tour of the two shelters by Shayne Williams, executive director of Lookout Emergency Aid Society. It now operates both facilities, following a recent merger with Keys Housing and Health Solutions.

Shayne Williams, executive director of Lookout Emergency Aid Society, during a tour of Whalley’s emergency Gateway Shelter. The facility is run out of an old apartment building from the ’70s and the organization struggles to serve the community’s most vulnerable. (Photo: AMY REID)

Williams, who previously served as executive director of Keys, said the Whalley shelter cooks in the summer, and with bunk beds placed within two feet from one another, one can easily imagine the noises and smells that plague the space at night.

"Surrey is a completely retrofitted ’70s building," he explained. "It’s poorly ventilated and insulated."

Then there’s the Front Room, a 24/7 drop-in centre that’s operated out of the same building as the Whalley shelter. It sees some 11,000 unique visitors in a typical year, Williams said.

"With 225 to 230 different people just in this building alone everyday, obviously the possibility of victimization is a little higher, just from the sheer number of transient people that are coming through here," he said, noting Yukon’s amenities are just for residents of the shelter.

There are some who try to take advantage of the vulnerable people seeking safe haven in the Front Room, he said.

"So many of these people are lost souls. And people try to prey upon those souls…. You’re looking at pimps, drug dealers, they come in. We identify them and work very closely with the RCMP," he noted. "Just recently, a known enforcer on the strip was killed in this neighbourhood and we knew about him. We knew every time he would walk up and down this road somebody was going to get beat up. So when he was walking up and down the road, we were making a phone call. Twenty per cent of this job is policing," he said.

Such is not the case at other purpose-built Lookout shelters, as people are able to stay inside the facility, not so vulnerable to outside influences.

"It’s really triage (in Surrey). People are walking in the door and you don’t know who’s coming. Where (at Yukon) folks check into the shelter and they can stay here during the day."

Williams said another difference between the two shelters is the flow.

At the Front Room, where food is served, people have to line up and are often waiting outside battling rough weather.

"It’s horrible. By the time they get inside, they’re not happy to be there, they’re pissed off and understandably. It’s better than it was, but there’s a long way to go."

The demand for services in Surrey outweighs that at the Yukon shelter, Williams noted, yet the Whalley operation is smaller. He hopes to see that change with a purpose-built space.

But according to Williams, the largest downfall of Surrey’s existing emergency shelter is the lack of transitional housing.

While Lookout has a 10-bed recovery home off-site, it’s five kilometres away.

"When it comes to bricks and mortar, it’s night and day. Really, that’s the biggest missing piece in Surrey," he said. "To have a shelter to draw people in, and to have nowhere to give them the next opportunity really puts us behind. It’s a missing step.

"It’s the thing that would have people not dying on the streets, because we’re currently seeing people dying on the streets…. It’s heartbreaking."

Despite the struggles Williams’ outlines, he said he’s proud of the work being done through the Gateway shelter. The organization has consistently housed an average of one person a day for the last several years, he noted.

"What we’re doing here is incredibly valuable work on a shoestring budget at a very high level of competency. Unfortunately, being the only harm reduction service provider in the community has made us ostracized by our own community in some cases," he said.

Williams went on to say he would like to see more government investment in social issues.

He pointed to a recent Homeless Hub report that stated every $10 put into social issues results in $21.72 in savings related to health care, social supports, housing and involvement in the justice system.

Williams said there was a lot of talk about hiring more police officers during the recent civic election.

"Take that investment and put it into social housing and you’ll probably see the equivalent in savings. You’ll probably see the same outcomes but have a healthier community overall," he said. "It’s like trying to mop up a floor when you’re missing half a roof."

Williams said no number of police on the streets will solve the issues the homeless face.

"And it’s not going to increase safety. If you leave people so incredibly marginalized and so disenfranchised, they’re going to do what they need to do to survive. It’s literally survival. We can get in front of this – we can. All we have to do is invest."

Williams has concerns with a new shelter being located in the hospital district, as opposed to on or near the strip.

"My concern is that you build a shelter out of the neighbourhood that needs it and the shelter is a beautiful amenity that maybe doesn’t get filled immediately. It’s not walking distance from here. Certainly if you’re a drug user or if you’re 45 and you’ve been homeless for some time – because 45 is considered senior in the homeless world – you can’t walk that."

If the new shelter is built there, and the problem still exists in Whalley’s core, "who is going to be blamed?" he asked. "In a perfect world, the new shelter would be in the same area."