WHALLEY — Inside Surrey’s winter shelter on a Tuesday morning, about a dozen people hang about in the main room.
Some watch TV, others drink coffee and one man sits with a guitar. Outside there’s not much to see or hear.
It’s calm, quiet and most certainly a different feel than the Front Room drop-in centre and Gateway emergency shelter just blocks away.
At the emergency shelter an hour earlier, a man was smoking hard drugs outside the building. A woman sitting on the sidewalk nearby looked around nervously as she pulled a pipe out of a bag. A dozen or so others lined the road, many with shopping carts in tow.
It’s a difference that’s intentional.
Unlike emergency and extreme weather shelters, the winter shelter runs 24 hours a day, allowing its residents to stay inside and not be kicked out at 7 a.m. to wander the streets. And, in an effort to provide a sense of normalcy and routine, each person has a dedicated bed.
From addicts to those struggling with mental health issues, the Whalley shelter’s residents come from a wide variety of backgrounds.
Robert has been at the shelter for about three weeks. Clean cut, with designer glasses, he doesn’t fit the stereotypical mold of someone you might think to find in a shelter.
Though an admitted addict, he said he wasn’t homeless, but lost his home when it was sold.
“I had nowhere to go,” said Robert.“Then I remembered the Front Room and they got me in here.”
He said the Front room is “pretty bad. Here it’s totally different. It’s quieter, not so crazy. I wish it was all year round.”
Robert is headed to treatment in Vernon from the shelter and then hopes to find housing again.
Also mingling in the shelter’s lobby was Theresa Tate, who says she goes by “Mouse.”
“I’m a drifter, a nomad. I go from place to place. But I want to set down roots. I want stability,” she says firmly. “This is a starting point – a mole hill.”
Tate says she’s dealt with mental health issues for about 15 years, and is in and out of hospital. She said she feels “dumped” by the system.
Being in the shelter has been a learning experience, she said.
“It helps me with my skills,” said Tate. “As the days went on, I started getting into a routine.”
Her present goal is to find housing.
“I need space. I’ve been locked in confined walls and I need peace and tranquility,” she said. “I’m almost there.”
Tate said thanks to the shelter, “I can honestly say I won’t end up where I began in life.”
Demand on the shelter has been high, said manager Linda Fox with Lookout Emergency Aid Society (pictured left), with the operation almost always full to capacity.
So far, 17 people have found housing and they’re just halfway through the season, with their doors scheduled to close at the end of May.
The 40-bed winter shelter, in an old Dell Beer & Wine store on Whalley Boulevard, is “as close to a home environment as you can get in a shelter,” said Fox.
“People can truly rest.”
Fox explained it can be hard to get to know people through the emergency shelter, which is also run by Lookout.
“So sometimes you’ll house somebody and then find out, no, it’s not working,” said Fox. “Here we really get to see what they’re like. So we know where they’re going to fit.”
One success story from the shelter is a man named Scott, said Fox, an amputee. After an injury in his leg didn’t heal, he began using drugs to treat pain, said Fox. Later, an infection spread and his leg was removed. He’s now in chronic pain.
Fox described him as the “nicest guy ever.”
“He’s had a really difficult time finding a place, and finding him housing was sort of a miracle.”
Stephanie Brett, left, is program co-ordinator at Surrey’s winter shelter.
She says Surrey’s facility is unique.
“People are allowed to sleep all day and heal,” said an enthusiastic Brett.
“It’s been going incredibly. People are happy. People are calm. I’ve never seen such a calm (shelter) environment like this in my life.”