The winter looming ahead looks to be an especially dangerous one for homeless people in Surrey as the COVID-19 pandemic will limit the number of available beds and mats at Extreme Weather Response shelters the city has to offer because of physical distancing measures.
Councillor Brenda Locke called the situation “shocking and scary.”
A corporate report by Jean Lamontagne, Surrey’s general manager of planning and development, that came before city council Monday night revealed a dire scenario. Council authorized the mayor to send a letter to BC Housing requesting “special attention” to make sure more Extreme Weather Response shelters are made available in Surrey for 2020-21.
According to the report, to date only five locations have been identified in Surrey and White Rock for EWR shelters this coming winter. That’s only 52 mats for adults and six mats for youths. Two shelters are in Whalley, while Cloverdale, Fleetwood and South Surrey have one each.
Last winter, there were nine EWR shelters in Surrey with 143 spaces for adults and 10 youth spaces for all of Surrey and White Rock.
Lamontagne’s report noted that 46 shelter beds are set to open at the Olive Branch Shelter at the end of October. “Given this information,” he wrote, “a rough estimate of the total number of EWR spaces required in Surrey is 195. This means that an estimated additional 137 spaces are needed (195-58 confirmed spaces).”
Extreme weather alerts were called on 99 nights between October 29, 2019 and March 25, 2020.
The Surrey-White Rock EWR plan defines extreme weather as “conditions deemed severe enough to present a substantial threat to the life or health of homeless people,” such as temperatures at or below zero degrees celsius, significant snow accumulation or sleet and freezing rain conditions, significant windstorms that may present danger to people living in wooded areas and makeshift shelters like cardboard boxes or lean-tos, and periods of extended heavy rain that saturates the ground, making it difficult for people to keep dry.
These shelters typically operate in churches and community agencies with BC Housing’s EWR funding covering the cost of staffing, food, cleaning and first aid supplies, and laundry.
Locke said while she supports the mayor writing a letter to BC Housing for help, “I’m just not sure that that’s enough. We are looking at a significant deficit of spaces for this coming winter and that is so frightening.”
Locke noted the number of people living on the streets in Surrey has grown “a lot in the last year and a bit” and said that a recent count of 644 homeless people in Surrey, done over two days, is a “significant under-count” because Surrey has a lot of land to cover and people fall through the cracks.
“We are probably looking at double or maybe even triple that number,” Locke said. “This is pretty frightening that we are not going to be able to serve people, the most vulnerable people, in our city this winter and I’m very concerned about that.”