EDITOR’S NOTE: In our special series Waking up Whalley’s Corner, we are sharing stories from the area around 108th Avenue and King George Boulevard. With this series, we are delving into the area’s struggles, triumphs and what lies ahead.
SURREY — People line up as the sun shines down and live music plays in the background in the heart of Whalley.
Those waiting to be fed from a truck are of all ethnicities and ages.
A mousy teenaged girl in a ball cap. An elderly Caucasian man with long grey hair sporting a leather vest and tattoos you can’t miss. A timid 20-something South Asian man.
Most people in the crowd outside NightShift Street Ministries don’t fit the stereotypical “street people” mold.
That’s the reality of homelessness and poverty, says NightShift founder MaryAnne Connor.
On this particular evening, about 40 people arrive to be fed by the faith-based organization. Their numbers have been down lately, Connor tells me as she counts them in her head. On an average night, they see more than 100.
“A part of me goes, ‘Where are all the people?’ And then I realize there’s someone in this lineup that just needs to connect,” says Connor.
“It’s about that one. If there’s someone here who needs friendship, who needs a prayer, who need a hug, who needs love – we all need love – then we’ve done what we’re here to do.”
It takes many people to make a night like this happen. On this Monday night, Abe Loewen is supervising.
“I oversee things, make sure people are not accosted. But they really self patrol,” Loewen tells me.
When he first began volunteering, most of the people they saw were men.
“But now there’s a lot more women and children. It’s anybody that can’t feed themselves for whatever reason. They’re not necessarily homeless.”
Meanwhile, I see a man who appears to be homeless helping set up tables.
I approach him and ask how long he’s volunteered. He isn’t a volunteer. He’s just doing his part, he tells me.
“That’s common,” Connor says as the man walks away. “They’re just so grateful for what we’re doing and they’re friends. Friends help friends.”
This is what she wishes people could see.
“People are people. I don’t know anybody here that wants to be here by choice,” she says.
Feeding those on the streets of Whalley is something they do every night.
“I hear often, ‘If it wasn’t for NightShift, I wouldn’t be alive.’ I don’t know how true that is,” she continued, “but this is soul food. It’s not just food.”
As Connor surveys the scene, she sighs happily.
“I don’t know how, but 10 years just goes by. Then all of the sudden, I think, ‘How did we get here?’ It’s surreal all the time.”
Optimism is king
But it hasn’t come easy. The group has faced its share of challenges – “spears” as she refers to them in her book, The Shift, which details the organization’s story – from the business community and even the city.
This very day, they were up against a “spear.”
The organization’s freezer broke down the night before and they lost all of their frozen meat. Luckily, some of the bread could be saved.
While undoubtedly devastated at the loss, Connor sees the problem like she does the others she’s come across in her journey to help the area’s homeless – with unwavering optimism.
“Something always happens,” she tells me moments after learning of the loss. “Somehow we always seem to figure it out.”
NightShift began as a small impromptu shelter in a church in 2004 after Connnor, a real estate mogul at the time, felt compelled to help.
She left her career for “Whalley World,” as she puts it. And not a day goes by that she regrets it.
In the beginning, she was scared of the people on the streets, though she’s ashamed of that now.
“I discovered the beauty in Whalley and the love. It shifted me, and I stayed here. I was terrified, I’m not proud to admit that. But I feel totally safe out here now.”
While NightShift’s DNA is outreach, it has grown to offer counselling, medical aid, life skills training and a whole lot more, helping not just the homeless but also people on parole, single moms and women in domestic violence.
And it continues to grow.
The organization’s thrift store moved to Guildford over the August long weekend, freeing up much-needed space in the ministry’s King George Boulevard headquarters, where they were “bursting at the seams.”
Renovation are underway and they will use that space to expand counselling services, as well as creating more office space and a daytime training area.
“We just really expanded everything that we’re doing. Next year is going to be a thrilling year.”
Where the need is
But longer term, the future is unknown, she says.
“It’s inevitable as things start moving north of 104th – am I going to get a high-rise development next to me that’ll be happy with the lineup? Probably not. I would be thrilled if people thought, we’re humanity, and society is judged by how we treat our weakest members. So if we’re not treating our weakest members… what does it say for this community?”
Though she doesn’t want to move, she said she will if she has to.
“If they push people around like cattle, and they end up down on the flats, then our outreach trucks and medical unit can go there. We can go anywhere. Our care centre helps some of the people here, but for the most part it’s people on parole, single moms, families, we do all kinds of therapy here.
“But I think the outreach of what we do will move and we’re OK with that. We’ll go where the need is. And right now the need is here.”
In the meantime, it’ll be business as usual, she said, which she admits can take its toll on all involved.
“What we do is messy,” she said firmly.
“This is messy. It looks bad. People die. There’s violence. There’s crime. But there’s a whole lot of love and that’s what I choose to see here. And love is the only way we’re going to conquer the evil and the darkness that’s out there. It’s our only hope.”
NEXT IN THIS SERIES: As Whalley Little League gears up to celebrate 60 years, we look at the association’s legacy and challenges and its oh-so-cool hats.