Councillor Vera LeFranc wants to see new shelters for Surrey

SURREY — While incoming Surrey First councillor Vera LeFranc has her sights set on finding a location for a new shelter in Surrey, she isn’t blind to how challenging that may prove to be.

A location for the new purpose-built homeless and transitional housing shelter has already been proposed to Surrey council, but was not passed at public hearing following some opposition. The city is now considering alternate locations, and details on those sites are expected to come forward next month.

LeFranc acknowledged the challenge of getting the community on board, but said she’s been through the process before.

“I went through the Timber Grove (Apartments) experience where people were really reacting to the placement of Timber Grove and they were really fearful of what that would mean to their neighbourhood,” she said. The 52-unit Whalley facility provides supportive housing for homeless people and those with a history of mental illness.

“In fact, what they’ve found is Timber Grove has been an amazing neighbour,” she said. “There are these fears, and then they don’t come to be real, and I think that that’s important but I also have to respect how people feel. They invest in their neighbourhood, they buy their home, and then something changes that might affect their quality of life and they feel quite strongly about that.”

LeFranc said best practices in shelter delivery shows people should have their own private space, which is not the case in Surrey’s existing shelter in Whalley.

“What’s happening in Surrey is we have this building that is very difficult to provide services in because people are in bunk beds. I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the province that still delivers shelter services in that way,” she noted.

“What that means for people who live there is they have to get up in the morning at 7 a.m. and move out and then they can’t come back until the evening…. If they had some private space where they could hang out during the day, keep their stuff, get a sense of calm and peace and be able to work well with their outreach workers, then they could actually move on with their lives.”

LeFranc said she hopes she can help educate the public on how a purpose-built shelter will operate, which she said will be in stark contrast to the existing Whalley shelter.

She said she’s hopeful city council can find a balance to ensure everyone’s needs are met. 

“But sometimes at city council hard decisions have to be made,” she stated. “If we can do one thing in this year, and get that homeless shelter on the road, that will be a huge success.”

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that LeFranc wants to get to work in furthering the city’s stock of up-to-par homeless facilities. Her background in social work goes back to the 90s, when she worked with women who had experienced abuse.

She later made the move to Surrey, getting a job with South Surrey White Rock Women’s Centre running employment programs for women who’d been abused. She then went on to work for Newton Advocacy Group doing similar.

Fast forward to today and LeFranc is working for Vancity, managing a variety of community projects, including the Surrey Homelessness and Housing Fund, a $9 million initiative financed through the city’s Affordable Housing Reserves Fund.

The fund has made contributions – big and small – to organizations in the community.

“Really, it goes to organizations throughout the community who tend to be more established, although we have supported new and emerging organizations, really cool ones,” she noted.

She recalled a program that came as an outcome of the murder of Janice Shore following a vicious Whalley attack.

Funding was given to Elizabeth Fry Society in the aftermath of the crime to establish a women’s only drop-in centre for those who are vulnerable.

“(Elizabeth Fry) has been doing it for two years not and they’ve had huge success. Those are the kinds of really cool things we see happening here.”

But there are smaller grants that are making a difference as well, she said, such as a $10,000 grant to Pacific Community Resources Society to allow them to purchase a home to house youth who were aging out of foster care.

“They were able to house six kids in that house. And you can do that for such a small amount of money. And these non-profits, I have to say, are amazing partners – amazing, smart and really innovative. Little bits of money can do amazing things.”

LeFranc commended the city for setting up the fund.

“It’s not usually done. Cities don’t usually want to give up control. But what it really did was made it a community-driven initiative. The board of the society was able to make the decisions, so it’s arms length. It’s non-political.”

LeFranc has also worked with the board and foundation of Surrey Homelessness and Housing Society, and helped develop the Surrey Poverty Reduction Strategy in co-operation with the Poverty Reduction Coalition.

Naturally, LeFranc said she’s excited to tackle similar issues from her council chair.

“I think that what we’ve seen, certainly in municipalities, is senior levels of government moving away from our standard social safety nets. So it’s been more and more difficult because municipalities kind of have to pick up the pieces – so increases in crime because of lack of mental health and addiction facilities, increased levels of poverty because we don’t have a poverty reduction strategy, provincially or federally,” she said.

“We have to pick up the slack and I’m excited about that opportunity. I want to be a strong voice for municipalities and for the people who live in our community that are struggling, and also the people who aren’t struggling but still have to deal with those effects, like crime and people who are living in poverty.”

LeFranc said she hopes to use the Innovation Boulevard model to push the city’s social innovation strategy to the next level.

“It’s pretty exciting to me because I like to push the envelope and do things in a different way.”

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