WHALLEY â€” The Whalley of today is a study of extreme contrasts. Over here, a glamorous new city hall, a glorious new civic plaza, and plans for a five-star hotel. Over there, a glistening new condo tower. And another. And another. Up above, the elevated track of Skytrain futuristically snakes between all of it.
Yet the Whalley of yesterday – the Whalley of homelessness, illness and addiction, the Whalley that some would have you believe has disappeared, is never far away. And "the strip" of 135A Street between 106th and 108th avenues is its hub.
It’s a place Erica Beckstead knows all too well. An admitted crack addict for nearly a decade of her adult life, Beckstead frequented the seamier parts of Surrey day and night in search of her next hit.
Whalley was one of her favourite haunts.
In the beginning, she says, she did it socially.
"I always had money, I always had a job." But as full-on addiction took hold, her life fell apart, piece by piece.
"I lost my son, I lost my friends, I lost my job, I lost my money and I eventually lost my home."
With her remaining possessions in storage, Beckstead took to the streets full time, wheeling a rolling suitcase crammed full of necessities from hit to hit. She slept where she could and when she could (she calls it "couch-surfing") and freely acknowledges that she did whatever she had to do to score.
Beckstead reckons she hit bottom in 2007, when she was "kidnapped and almost raped" in pursuit of more drugs. In short order, she’d cleaned up her act and accepted a job with Club Med in Florida, where she says she detoxed.
One "hiccup" aside, where she relapsed and then spent three months in a recovery house, Beckstead says she’s been clean since.
It would be hard to disbelieve her. Well spoken, energetic and nattily attired, Beckstead looks and sounds the part of a happy and successful human being. That her own business – she’s now a makeup artist for TV and film – is doing well only adds to the turnaround.
But one more thing: Erica Beckstead is giving back.
In 2011, she initiated a program she calls the "Whalley Santa Cause." In it, Beckstead and a legion of volunteers descend into the toughest zone in the toughest neighbourhood in Surrey, distributing hampers to those who most desperately need them. They do it on Christmas Day.
It all began when Beckstead, who’d been staying in some rather posh hotels during her time with Club Med, realized she’d collected a few too many toiletries from a few too many luxury washrooms. It seemed like a good idea to give them away back home in Whalley.
And so, on Christmas Day 2014, a time when most people were hanging close to home with family and rum-enriched eggnog, Beckstead – with her son, who’s now re-entered her life – once again brought the Whalley Santa Cause out of mothballs.
At 1 p.m., the gang gathered at Gateway SkyTrain Station. Many were former addicts. Some were social workers. Others were simply good people willing to give up a couple hours on Dec. 25.
One, a woman we’ll call Jane, had clearly spent several hours assembling and decorating her hampers and personalizing each and every gift card. It was impossible not to get caught up in the moment as Jane, who explained she’d been clean just four months, proudly showed off her contributions to the effort.
The kicker? Jane is just 17 years old. Soon enough, warm embraces and Christmas "hellos" gave way to the reality of the situation, and the crew made its way to the corner of 135A Street and 108th Avenue, a place where the new face of Whalley instantly crumbles away.
And the giving commenced. A dude with his home in a shopping cart, an old woman quietly talking to herself, two young guys sitting on the sidewalk shooting heroin.
Into the 24-hour drop-in centre known as the Front Room, where some were watching TV and chowing down but many were slumped in their chairs.
Directly across the street from the Front Room, a tent city. Comprised of blue tarps and rope and stretching a couple hundred feet along the sidewalk outside the Victory Family Church, it looked to house two or three dozen people. It was something Beckstead said she hadn’t seen in her previous outings, and it made her sad.
Up the alleyway, between the Mennonite Central Committee Thrift Shop and Hung and Sons Auto Repair, old lawn chairs vied for dominance with sleeping bags and suitcases. Here, your intrepid reporter was inadvertently left behind, taking photos, as the group wandered back to the street.
It was, in all candor, a concerning moment. But the moment passed and the situation brightened considerably when one curiously upbeat fellow asked to have his picture taken, posing with his Christmas gift.
Back on 135A and the few remaining hampers were doled out in short order. Her final hamper in hand, Beckstead spotted a severely bedraggled chap searching through a vacant lot for drug remnants others may have inadvertently dropped.
One problem. A construction fence lay between the giver and the receiver. But it is the image of Beckstead, on tiptoes, pushing the hamper over that very real, yet somehow symbolic, fence to those eagerly awaiting hands that sticks with me most (see photo on front page).
At that moment, it was a very good Christmas.