FOCUS: Surrey’s homeless struggle with shelter options

SURREY — The time is 6:30 p.m. The sun has set and the temperature hovers around freezing point in Whalley.

Driving northbound along King George Boulevard into the epicentre of Whalley, people can be seen riding bikes and pushing shopping carts that presumably carry all their worldly belongings.

One woman sparks a cigarette she’s just picked up off the ground. Another man drags a full garbage can – containing who knows what – as he walks past the RCMP’s Whalley District Office.

At 108th Avenue, nestled between a furniture store and a strip club is SUMS – Surrey Urban Mission Society. On the door is a handwritten sign that says "Shelter opens at 7."

People are already outside, waiting for the doors to open.

It’s Nov. 13, the third night Surrey’s various extreme weather shelters were called to open this year. The beds are opened when weather conditions become dangerous for people on the street – freezing temperatures, significant snowfall, gusty winds or prolonged rain.

The beds are then available on and off throughout the cold season. Last year, the shelters were open roughly 60 nights from Nov. 1 to March 31.

The program had an early start this year, as the weather usually takes a turn for the worse in late November. But even on Nov. 11 – the first night of service – SUMS alone saw 47 people show up to choose a mat on the floor to sleep on for the night before braving the cold again come 7 a.m.

Though Surrey takes part in the extreme weather program – a provincial initiative – this is the second straight year the city has gone without a winter shelter. Seventeen sites were proposed, but none were deemed suitable due to "neighbourhood integration" issues.

Without a 24-hour winter shelter, the options for Surrey’s homeless are limited.

In 2012-13, the 40-bed facility provided 24-hour shelter to 157 people over six months. The program led to 72 people finding long-term housing options.

But since the landowner sold the property to a developer in 2013, the city has been unable to find a new location, despite an exhaustive search. According to a council report, staff explored 12 locations in 2013 and a further five in 2014 but ran into concerns expressed by either potential landlords or adjacent tenants.

At the emergency shelter at SUMS that cold November night, the doors open at 7 p.m. People quickly flow inside.

One man, Danny, says he has been on the streets in the area since about 1997. The skin on his face is peeling on and around his nose, presumably from the cold he’s had to endure. His cheeks are blushed, as his body temperature adjusts from the freezing temperatures to the heat that flows through the mission.

He says he stays in a tent city nearby, but wouldn’t share where it was, other than saying it’s in the forest.

Asked how the city’s street life has changed since he arrived all those years ago, he said there’s been a lot of building expansion, which has resulted in the loss of forested area – areas where homeless had gathered.

"They’re all being decimated for development… Surrey’s overall plan, although I can see it’s good, they’re trying to do the best for their citizens, they’re going to displace a lot of people," he said, noting that displacement has already begun.

"Where do the people that are on the low-income scale, where are they supposed to go? I don’t understand. Basically, what’s going to end up happening is families are going to have to clump together to afford basic shelter. It’s looking like China."

Danny is on disability and said a suitable place to live ranges from $550 to $700 a month.

"That would eat up all my disability," he says. "I shouldn’t have to live in squalor. The last place (I saw) was in a house with 12 other people and $500 for a bedroom is just absolutely ridiculous."

Danny says he wishes the city would come down and actually talk to people, "bounce ideas" off each other.

"There’s a lot of smart people down here. There’s a lot of reasons people end up here. Drug addiction isn’t the only one. Alcoholism, injuries also. That’s what happened to me, I got an injury, I went from earning $5,000, $6,000 a month to $800 a month. You don’t adjust to that. You live to the best of your means. I lost my family as a result. I myself spiraled into addiction after my injury. But that’s my own fault, I don’t blame the city for that, I don’t blame the city for anything actually, I just don’t see them doing enough."

Asked what he thinks of the SUMS extreme weather shelter, he says he "can’t say enough" about the shelter.

"When it’s freezing out like it is, it’s nice to come where everybody’s friendly. They welcome you and they provide a nice hot meal for you. It’s a blessing."

Urban mission cook
A cook at the Surrey Urban Mission helps prepare dessert on Nov. 13 after the organization served dinner to those coming in for overnight shelter from the cold. (Photo: Amy Reid)

More Than Just Shelter

Another man, Brian, arrives at SUMS for the night with his wife. He says she’s terminally ill.

He says they have been on the streets for about two weeks, following him being laid off from his job as a plumber.

"We still don’t classify ourselves as being homeless," he says. "But we are."

If it wasn’t for the mission, he says the two would be sleeping outside under a tarp that night. Temperatures were expected to dip to -2 C. Brian says he’s thankful to the mission for more than just shelter. The staff helped him get clean, and helped him feel appreciated and worthwhile.

"I guess the biggest thing they give to people is a moral boost. You’re not worthless – somebody does care about me."

He says a permanent, purpose-built shelter in the area is "very, very needed."

"There’s so many people still out there," he adds.

Brian says the feeling of being on Whalley’s streets depends on each individual’s scenario.

"If you’ve got addictions, also, your family background, if you have no family support or no one to turn to places like this are awesome.

"Why I come here is because the people are so hospitable. When we came in here we got everything we needed, things that we didn’t have, such as winter jackets, gloves, everything to prepare so we didn’t go out and freeze."

He says it’s "super cold" out on the streets. "And a lot of people are ignorant. If you’re dirty, you’re twice as bad, if they know you’re homeless, it’s even worse."

Amrit Chauhan has volunteered with the mission for about four years, along with various members of his family. On this night, he was checking people in as they arrived for the night.

He says it’s been a humbling experience. Chauhan recalls one man who would always have a newspaper and coffee in hand in the morning. He says he was always commenting on political matters, and discussing them at length with whoever would listen.

"Who would’ve thought a homeless person would like to read?" he says, noting his perception of street people has changed as a result.

"I definitely have more compassion."

‘Nobody Has Done Anything’

Widely recognized as an undercount, the latest regional homelessness count suggests 403 people are homeless in Surrey.

But SUMS director Jonquil Hallgate estimates the true number is closer to 2,000.

Hallgate wishes she could keep her doors open year round, but says she doesn’t have the resources to do so.

Working on the front lines, she is no stranger to the realities the homeless face.

"It’s really cold, I went out with the police officers, they do a scoot around, and there’s a lot of people out on the street who have nowhere to go, who are cold and wet, no gloves, no socks, no shoes – or shoes with holes or shoes that are wet. Just hoodies on, no jackets, it’s pretty depressing."

She says it begs the question, "Why is it that Vancouver has HEAT (Homeless Emergency Action) shelters and some kind of marginal housing?

"It’s not great, but at least it’s somewhere people can be in out of the elements. We have none of those things here in Surrey."

While she understands city hall wants to see permanent housing built, she notes it wouldn’t happen anytime soon.

"I’ve been doing this for 14 years and haven’t seen any substantial housing," she adds. "We know every year that November is coming and every year… and yet we’re having the same conversation. Nobody wants people out on the street. Nobody wants them out in front of business. But nobody has done anything."

Surrey urban mission
A cook at the Surrey Urban Mission helps prepare dessert on Nov. 13 after the organization served dinner to those coming in for overnight shelter from the cold. (Photo: Amy Reid)

She’s seen the homeless population change over the last decade. Back then, the majority of the street population were dealing with addictions.

"Today, we’re seeing people who have aged, with major health issues, people using mobile aids, and we even have a man who is a double amputee," she says.

While the city didn’t find a location for a winter shelter this year, it has also yet to find a location for a purpose-built homeless shelter and transition housing facility.

A proposed location near Surrey Memorial Hospital went to public hearing last June and was met with some opposition, so it was tabled.

Coun. Judy Villeneuve says she has heard the city is working with an applicant, and hopes to have an update at the Dec. 1 council meeting. She hopes a location will be found soon.

"It’s No. 1 priority for me," she says of getting the shelter built. "I want to find that location as soon as possible so we can secure the funds from BC Housing and get going on that shelter."

Replacing the current emergency shelter is a top priority in the city’s Master Plan for Housing the Homeless in Surrey, Villeneuve notes, and Surrey is partnering with BC Housing to build it. The city will provide the land, and BC Housing will fund and operate the centre.

"People that are vulnerable, they need a purpose-built facility," Villeneuve says. "I’ve done tours of the Lower Mainland’s purpose-built shelters and they work efficiently, people are relaxed and can stay during the day, and people are not hanging out on the streets. And really that’s what we want to see."

As per her talks with BC Housing, as soon as the city secures a site, the funding will come in. Villeneuve hopes a decision will be made in January.

The city’s housing master plan also calls for 450 units of transitional and supported housing. Since 2006, 156 units have been created.

How to help

While many consider dry socks, gloves and jackets necessities, the truth is they are luxuries to some in the community. To donate to those in need, items can be dropped off directly to the Surrey Urban Mission (10776 King George Blvd.), or to Hyland House (6595 King George Blvd.), where they will be distributed amongst the various extreme weather shelters in the area. In-demand items are cough drops, toques, gloves, new socks and underwear, gently-used or new coats, work boots, as well as first aid supplies such as Band-Aids, bandages and antibiotic ointments.

— with files from Adrian MacNair

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