A rendering of a planned modular housing project in Surrey. (Photo submitted)

Concerns linger about housing project for Surrey’s homeless

Advocate says some homeless fear prison-like conditions, but city insists units will be ‘comfortable’

A 160-unit transitional housing project will soon be operational in Whalley but questions are being raised about how it will be managed.

Erin Schulte visits the 135A Street “Strip” at least twice a week to hand out food and blankets to the homeless.

While the project is being touted as an “emergency solution to meet the urgent need of people experiencing homelessness,” Schulte said she’s hearing concerns from the homeless community.

“They are telling me that it will be just like a concentration camp. Tons of rules and restrictions,” she told the Now-Leader. “Most people will leave the minute they feel policed or managed…. They just feel that it will be jail without being a jail. And again, it’s temporary. Another Band-Aid at the wrong time.”

Part of the tent city on 135A Street in Surrey. (Photo: Amy Reid)

Schulte said she’s also heard frustration that the emergency housing will arrive after winter ends – that it should have come prior to winter, not after.

But what does she think?

“I have to believe that this will be a positive for the people of 135A Street,” Schulte mused.“But with that being said I have to wonder why there was not an open discussion with the frontline workers and those that spend countless hours on the Strip working directly with the population on their opinions on the best way to transition these folks.

“How are we going to decide who deserves one of these beds? What is the city’s plan in regards to managing the many that will not fit into this mold, those that will choose to continue to live outdoors and those that get removed for one reason or another from this temporary housing? What will the rules be in regards to drugs and drug possession on site? Attending the open house (on Tuesday night) my first thought was, ‘Wow, there is a lot of security here,’ and I wondered why. Second thought was, ‘Is this a sign of how this temporary housing is going to be managed?’

“We will have to sit back and watch how this all plays out,” Schulte added.

“Praying for the best.”

See also: Surrey mayor says 160 ‘emergency’ houses for homeless will change 135A Street

See also: Third site of homeless housing project may be across from Surrey rec centre

Terry Waterhouse, Surrey’s public safety director, said Schulte raised good questions. To those concerns, he noted the modular housing sites will not have an “overabundance” of security.

“Lookout (Society) is the service provider at all three locations. They’re very experienced at building operating models that do not require overt security,” he said.

Waterhouse said frontline workers were involved in the process, pointing to the City Centre Response Plan, launched in December of 2016 alongside Fraser Health and RCMP.

The teamwork has resulted in a good understanding of the people living on 135A Street, said Waterhouse, adding that the modular housing sites were designed with their needs in mind to hopefully decrease any resistance or weariness to use them.

“We’ve been working with this community for over a year now to ensure we understand their needs, perspective and could create stability,” Waterhouse said. “We know matching those individuals with appropriate housing options is a challenge…. But we have a flexible model and will respond to ensure placement can happen.”

Waterhouse said the modular housing project will be run similarly to the city’s Guildford shelter, opened last year, which he described as having a “homelike atmosphere in which people are really comfortable and can really stabilize.”

See more: Surrey approves homeless shelter in Guildford

See more: Count finds 49 per cent more homeless people in Surrey

See more: More than 100 seniors living on Surrey streets: homeless count

Waterhouse said the city anticipates there will be enough housing stock so individuals won’t have to camp on 135A Street and will, instead, choose the modular housing “because comparison to life in a tent to with no food and services is obviously substandard to what they will get.”

The modular houses are expected to each be roughly 160 square feet, with a bed, personal space and bathroom.

Particularly because the province has promised the temporary housing units will be eventually replaced by 250 units of permanent affordable housing.

The city is taking a “people first” approach as the Whalley area is redeveloped and revitalized, said Waterhouse.

Public Safety Director Terry Waterhouse.

“If you can’t house an individual, you can’t help an individual,” he continued. “City Centre itself over the last several years has undergone significant transition and that transition continues. We know transition of an area requires transition of the people first, particularly those entrenched on 135A Street…. We want to provide the right measures and right program to transition the individuals away from the street.

“We need to ensure we’re not just thinking about the buildings going up but also thinking about people who feel forced for that to be their residence. They can get the transition they need then the businesses in the area start to see the transition and revitalization that doesn’t displace people.That’s a significant problem. If you don’t do it right… simply displacement of people in any one location, who are in tents, they just move to another area and you didn’t solve problem.”

Councillor Vera LeFranc echoed that sentiment, saying the modular units “have been designed to fully contain the residents and meet all of their needs.”

“Guildford shelter has a similar model and while they are right next to a city park, there has been little to no disruption to the use of the park,” LeFranc said.

“I would expect that the operator, in this case Lookout, would monitor this accordingly,” she added. “It is critically important to bring those from 135A (Street) inside so there is less disruption in the neighbourhood and so that they can begin to stabilize and move into permanent housing.”

Michael Nielsen (pictured above), who runs Sprite Multimedia about a block up 108th Avenue from 135A Street, said the “co-ordinated efforts of the City of Surrey, BC Housing, Fraser Health, federal and provincial governments is long overdue.”

“I started my business, Sprite Computers, way back in 1983. Back then there was virtually no visible homelessness in our community,” he recalled.

“I have seen the problem escalate in the last five years to where it is now, and every year I start out with an optimistic attitude that this is the year we will solve this issue.”

A total of 602 homeless people were counted in Surrey in the 2017 Metro Vancouver Homeless Count, a 49-per-cent increase from the previous count in 2014.

Nielsen said the new effort to house the growing homeless population will only be successful if the proper resources are made available.

“I think we need integrated personnel who can manage these sites on a 24/7 basis,” he added.

“I would also like to see the sites spread throughout the city,” said Nielsen “Obviously there is going to be a big push back with the NIMBY attitudes of other neighbourhoods. Just look at what happened in South Vancouver. But the old adage of keeping most of the resources for the homeless in the downtown area of Surrey are making it almost impossible to run a business, and even harder to attract new business to our area.

“I believe this is a start and with the proper co-ordination of services we can make a difference, but it will be an ongoing challenge that will need constant attention for quite some time,” he added.

Michael Nielsen of Sprite Multimedia. (Photo: Amy Reid)

The Downtown Surrey Business Improvement Association (BIA) is also advocating against a permanent cluster of such sites in Surrey’s core.

In a release, the DSBIA said it will continue to work with all levels of government to ensure “that this is the first phase of the planned strategy which will eventually see modular housing spread throughout the city as opposed to concentrated into any one region of the city.”

BIA chair Bill Cunningham said the organization has been “extremely concerned over this escalating issue.”

According to a release, many businesses in the BIA have experienced “difficulties recruiting and retaining employees; extra costs created by almost daily incidences of vandalism or theft; costs relating (to) clean-up of litter, garbage, needles and human feces on their property.”

“Coupled with these issues these businesses have seen a corresponding decrease in customers expressing concerns visiting the area,” the release notes.

“We are very hopeful the new housing and the deconstruction of 135A Street will address the issues that the businesses have been experiencing,” said Cunningham.

“The DSBIA’s intent has always been focused on getting people off the street and getting them the help they require.”

Two sites for the temporary modular housing units have been confirmed, at 10662 King George Boulevard and 13550 105 Ave., and the city is currently considering a third at 13425 and 13455 107A Ave., across from Chuck Bailey rec centre.



amy.reid@surreynowleader.com

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