WHALLEY – It’s not a polished operation just yet, but Surrey’s winter shelter officially opened its doors Tuesday night, welcoming five homeless men in from the cold.
“The first comment from a guy this morning was, ‘I had the best sleep I’ve had in weeks,” said manager Linda Fox Wednesday morning.
The old Dell Beer & Wine store on Whalley Boulevard has been transformed into a 40-bed shelter equipped with five bathrooms, several showers including one for people with disabilities, washing machines and dryers, facilities to reheat food to accommodate meal service and lockers for people to store belongings.
“We’re doing like a bit of a slow opening, a soft opening sort of, because we’re really trying to build a community here,” Fox explained. “We’re getting a few people in at a time. There’s a variance in the rules here from the drop-in (shelter), so it’s a big change for people but they’re loving it.”
Fox said some kinks are still being worked out, such as getting cable running, putting shelves together and waiting on more furniture, but things are chugging along.
By the end of the week, Fox expects the shelter will be full.
“We want to build a tight community here.”
The winter shelter is run by Lookout Emergency Aid Society (which runs the Gateway emergency shelter on 135A Street) and the group gave the Now a look at the space last week, with pungent paint fumes still lingering in the air as construction workers buzzed about the site putting some finishing touches on the facility.
“This is so exciting for us,” said Fox. “The thing about the Gateway shelter versus this site is it’s going to provide some dignity. They’re going to be able to have a safe space, they can lounge around as if it’s their home, they can really rest and get to feel like themselves again.”
While the city has extreme weather shelters, they’re only open at night, meaning the homeless have to leave and spend their whole day outside.
“Other resources are also going to come and provide outreach, mental health care, addictions care, just things that are not able to be provided in a space that also houses a drop-in (at the emergency Gateway shelter nearby),” Fox said. “We’ll see some real connections come out of this and some real change.”
An important part of the winter shelter’s design was the creation of a separate 10-bed space for just women, Fox added.
“Women are all very vulnerable on the street.” she said. “That’s why we positioned it close to the staff room because when the ice does thaw, women want to talk.
“Women need to feel safe. And they don’t feel safe out there. They are going to feel really welcome here.”
Developed by the City of Surrey in 2012 and administered by Keys (now Lookout), Surrey’s winter shelter program provided 24-hour shelter to 157 people over a span of six months from 2012-13. It led to 72 people finding housing.
But since the landowner sold the property to a developer in 2013 the city was unable to land on a new location, despite an exhaustive search.
Staff looked at 12 locations in 2013 and five more last year but ran into concerns from landlords or neighbours. But this year, the city landed on a site.
Fox hopes to repeat past successes.
“When you can house someone, have a person relax, not have to take their possessions and leave at 7 o’clock in the morning, and you can work with them during the day, miracles can happen. Miracles will happen here,” she said, smiling. “We want to get people help. We have five or six months to make some miracles happen.”
So far, there’s been no push-back from residents or businesses, according to Fox.
“The community has been so involved,” she said. “There’s already been people coming in talking about providing meals, the community’s been really behind this so far.”
Bonnie Burnside with the Downtown Surrey BIA attended the open house. She praised the shelter’s bright and open space.
Burnside urged the community, both businesses and residents, to support the winter shelter.
“The community is all working together to make this happen,” she said. “Homelessness is not an issue that’s just here in Surrey and it’s not just here in City Centre. It’s everywhere. As a community we have to deal with the issues here and the only way we can do that if we all work together.”
The BIA will be working with Lookout to help deal with any issues that arise, Burnside said.
“When you put in a shelter, everyone around there thinks, ‘Oh my god, now everyone is going to be drawn to the shelter.’ But we want to make it a positive,” she said. “There’s going to be people who are naysayers but all we can do is work together to try and mitigate any problems that come up.
“We have a problem now,” Burnside stressed. “This is a solution – this shouldn’t be the problem.”
BC Housing provides funding to operate and staff winter shelters in communities where the number of homeless people exceeds the number of shelter beds available, explained Aileen Murphy, Surrey’s senior social planner.
“And that’s the case in Surrey,” she noted.
The 2014 Metro Vancouver Homeless Count found 403 homeless people in Surrey, 140 of those unsheltered.
Murphy said the winter shelter is really a short-term fix, and the longer term solution is the new emergency shelter in the works.
The city has rezoned land near Surrey Memorial Hospital for the new facility.