EDITOR’S NOTE: In Waking up Whalley’s Corner, we delve into the area’s struggles, triumphs and what lies ahead. This is the final in a series. Read Parts 1-6 by clicking here.
SURREY — For Linda Fox, coming back to Gateway Emergency Shelter was serendipitous.
It’s where she began her foray into the world of homelessness and now she’s returned as its manager in a time when a new shelter for the homeless is in the works.
“You think about downtown (Vancouver) and how many purpose-built shelters are in that small area. But the need here in Surrey is great, it’s huge,” said Fox.
Since her return to Surrey’s shelter last week, Fox said she’s noticed a change since her time there seven years ago.
“I do notice that a lot of our typical vulnerable populations are way more represented in Surrey now. I see more women here now and the percentage of First Nations folks seems to have gone way up…. Even pregnant women. Imagine having to put a pregnant woman in this shelter.”
Fox comes from managing Lookout Emergency Aid Society’s “flagship” Yukon Shelter in Vancouver that boasts more than 70 shelter beds and 37 transitional housing units, as well as a lounge area. It has a commercial kitchen, a bed bug sauna and a space to hold community events and birthday celebrations.
A purpose-built shelter is one that was built specifically to serve the homeless, while having the least impact on the neighbourhood, as opposed to retro-fitting an old apartment building with beds, which is what Surrey’s 40-bed facility has now.
A proper shelter is a dream, Fox said, and she’d like to see the new Surrey site become Lookout’s new flagship location.
The City of Surrey gave the green light for a new shelter in the 9600-block of 137th Street in December 2014. BC Housing plans to build the shelter, which is hoped to have 50 shelter beds and 50 units of transitional housing. BC Housing says the project is still in the “preliminary stages.”
When it comes, will it change the face of homelessness in Whalley?
Fox said she expects it will, to a point.
“It won’t be like this,” she said as she gazed around the shelter. “In a new shelter people can get up, leave their things in their room, access the computer and look for a job or home. That’s far different than having to load all the things on your back and leave here at 7 a.m.
“It would be the dream of a lifetime.”
‘We could do so much more’
Steve Cobon, who has worked at the 365-day Gateway Shelter since it opened and served as its manager before Fox, echoed her words.
“When someone says purpose-built, these images pop into my mind of the work we could do,” he said.
Cobon pointed to the success of the 24-hour winter shelter in 2012-2013. Of the 157 people it serviced, 42 per cent were housed and 98 per cent of those who were housed retained the housing after six months.
He attributes that success to the services they were offered – after having a good night’s sleep.
“We were able to do that because we were away from here,” he said as he stood in the middle of the shelter’s dormitory, filled with bunk beds and plastic Rubbermaid containers for folks to leave their belongings as they sleep.
“These were chronic homeless,” he continued. “There we were able to start. When people become homeless, that despair sets in and they don’t know where to go or what to do. In at night and out in the morning. But there we had people making beds in the morning. Pretty soon they were all doing it. We started from scratch, building up, one thing at a time.”
A winter shelter hasn’t been found since that year since the landowner sold the property and the city hasn’t been able to find a new location.
Cobon thinks the emergency shelter’s new location near Surrey Memorial Hospital is a good choice because it’s close to transit and there’s plenty of resources there, such as the detox centre.
“It’s a good fit,” he mused. “Whether the people there will like it, I don’t know. But they have to look at the big picture. And the big picture is that homelessness is not going to go away unfortunately.”
Statistically, one per cent of the population has always been homeless, he said.
“It’s just too expensive for people, that’s the reality. We’ve done amazing things here over the years. But with a purpose-built shelter, we could do so, so much more.”
Codon doesn’t think moving the shelter will drastically change the area the current one sits in along 135A Street.
“Whalley is Whalley,” he stressed. “The people are here. It’s home.”
‘Stacked in Vancouver’s favour’
Alex Dibnah, a research intern with the Downtown Surrey BIA this summer, embarked upon a project looking at BC Housing contributions.
She found over the past five years, investments have been “stacked considerably in Vancouver’s favour.”
In the past fiscal year alone – 2014 to 2015 – there were a total of 60,556 BC Housing units across the region with 27,136 of them (44.8 per cent) in Vancouver and 7,988 (13.2 per cent) in Surrey.
Of the $394,736,000 invested in the region, roughly 58 per cent went to Vancouver and 12 per cent to Surrey, she found.
“These figures demonstrate that Surrey has received substantially less support from BC Housing than Vancouver since 2011,” says Dibnah’s report.
She also noted there have been only three capital projects completed in Surrey in the last 10 years – Timber Grove, Phoenix Centre and the Atira Project.
She found 1,700 units of supporting housing were opened in Vancouver between 2010 to 2014 with 439 opening in 2014 alone.
“According to the most recent homeless count, Vancouver has over four times more homeless individuals than Surrey (1,803 to 403).
“However, as Surrey is growing considerably faster than Vancouver, it is clear that Surrey’s needs will continue to grow,” she wrote in the report.
“As a new, rapidly growing urban centre, Surrey has the benefit of a clean slate, and can learn from the examples of other, more established cities. Vancouver, the only city in the province currently larger than Surrey, has an entrenched homeless problem. The right actions now could help Surrey avoid following in Vancouver’s footsteps.”
Simply put, she noted “the available services are falling short of the demand in Surrey.”
Dibnah said she was “blown away” at her findings.
BC Housing did not respond to the Now’s request for interview on the BIA’s report by deadline.
Dibnah said the lack of a stable shelter puts individuals at risk for victimization, health concerns and extreme stress. Beyond that, she noted it’s also a strain on other community members.
The DSBIA’s 2015 safety audit found that homelessness ranked as one of the top safety concerns among its members.
“People, we’ve realized, are feeling a little less safe this year and a lot of them are attributing that to what they see as an increase of street people in the area,” Dibnah told the Now.
“It creates a perception of not being safe, or they’re worried about their customers coming in and not wanting to be there. It’s more of the nuisance-level type of crimes, littering, discarded needles and stuff like that.”
DSBIA manager Bonnie Burnside said unfortunately, an emergency shelter is a necessary thing.
The BIA is in favour of a new shelter with transitional and supportive housing.
“I think if the purpose-built shelter is built and run properly that it should not be a detriment to the community.
“It should be an asset, because the shelters are there and they should be helping the vulnerable people. In turn that will help everybody else.”