Skip to content

Indigenous people experiencing homelessness a growing, complex concern in Surrey

Trauma from residential schools, poverty and discrimination among issues faced by Indigenous people
A report released on Jan. 16 details the complex issue of homelessness affecting Indigenous people in the city of Surrey. More needs to be done to meaningfully address homelessness in the city catered towards Indigenous people, which conductors of the report find a lack of. (File photo)

This is the fourth story in a series on homelessness in Surrey and White Rock, which digs into how homelessness is impacting Indigenous communities in the area.

Click here to read parts one, two and three.

A room suitable for six people held about 45 boys, including seven-year-old Frank, not long after he was taken to a residential school in Mission. That was 1972, and it would become the place he would stay for the next four years.

An “overflow” portable — as it was called — for even more boys, was next-door, Frank recalled, laughing without humour. The irony is not lost on him.

“Going up those stairs was the scariest thing… I knew I was staying the night in a place I don’t know and I didn’t know all the rez kids were going through the same thing,” Frank told Peace Arch News, chatting in White Rock on a snowy and cold winter morning.

The Matsqui man is one of the growing number of Indigenous people experiencing homelessness, who has sought shelter at the daytime warming centre in White Rock this season, said operator Upkar Singh Tatlay.

A report released Jan. 16 by the Surrey Urban Indigenous Leadership Committee (SUILC) found that, as of 2020, at least 635 Indigenous people are experiencing homelessness in the city.

‘I thought I was going to a safe place’

Next door to Frank’s childhood dorm was one for the girls, of whom there were fewer. It was where his sister, who was nine at the time, stayed, he said, but the two were not able to speak, as boys and girls were forbidden from interacting.

Frank’s brother, who was 11 months younger, was put in a different “private school,” separating all the siblings. Still, the three found ways to speak to one another sporadically.

“It was scary. My sister kept telling me that she cried every night and she wouldn’t tell me why. She still won’t tell me why, but I slowly figured out it was because she was getting molested,” he shared.

He also had an older brother who was taken to residential school for three months at age 16.

The siblings were able to reunite just once a year, at Christmas, until they were hauled back to “jail.”

Frank thought about his mother a lot while he was away.

“The worst part was, when my dad died, three days later my mom drove us to the residential school.”

Frank’s mom had also been forced into a residential school when she was younger. That detail is all Frank knows about her experience, as she never spoke about that time.

“It must have been hard for her. The rest of her siblings got to stay with their mom.”

After Frank’s father passed away, his mother’s mental health worsened, leading her admittance to hospital for treatment. Before she went, she took her kids to residential school, telling Frank that it would only be for four days while she received care. It was likely her only option, Frank came to realize later in life.

After those four days had passed, Frank told one of the teachers that his mom was coming to get him.

“They told me, ‘No, this is residential.’ I didn’t know what residential meant. I was only seven years old,” he said, adding that his mother was turned away at the door, forcing her children to remain in residential school for the next several years.

For Frank, the physical abuse he endured at the church-run institution is as difficult to forget as the mental abuse.

“First day I got there, I got a strap,” Frank recalled, gesturing with his left hand a motion of being whipped on his right palm. “And the last day, I got a strap and every day (in-between). Some do it on the hand, some do it with a belt, some a ruler…” he trailed off.

Even though corporal punishment was banned a few months after Frank arrived at the school, he recalled, the beatings never actually stopped.

“I thought I was going to a safe place.”

Although indigenous to the Matsqui First Nation, Frank and his siblings did not learn about their culture growing up, as their mother had had it “beat out” of her. In their turn, he and most of his siblings went through the same thing.

Working while living unhoused

Fast-forward 46 years, Frank spends his days working hard-labour jobs, in “all areas of trades,” he says, but unlike most who work during the day, the 57-year-old doesn’t have the comfort of a house to return to, or even a bed in which to get some needed rest.

Frank is now living on the Semiahmoo Peninsula without shelter, despite his best efforts to work hard and earn an income.

“I would go work right this minute,” he said.

Frank is just one of several people the warming centre sees who works daily, but for one reason or another, are still living on the streets.

For the Matsqui man, years of abuse and colonial violence have gone untreated and finding stability in housing has been an immense challenge, he shared.

RELATED: Extreme Weather shelter in White Rock increasingly seeing unhoused people with jobs

Working since he was 12 years old, Frank took any job he could find after leaving residential school and returning to the Matsqui reserve, attempting to work through the lingering wounds.

His sister, “the only other one left” of his family, still lives on the reserve, while the siblings lost their two other brothers, one to suicide and the other to a head injury from falling on ice. Frank is left “still missing them to this day.”

Every detail of the residential school building, his old daily routines, his friends and bullies, the sports he would play, every time he was hit or yelled at, is still fresh in Frank’s mind.

Asked what he hopes to see change in his life, Frank said he wants to stop using substances, but doesn’t know how. His experience at residential school and grief for his lost loved ones are too painful, he said.

Support to cope with the experience was never provided for him or any of his siblings, he said, so using substances is the only thing that can help his pain when treatment in Surrey and White Rock are not accessible for him.

1 in 26 Indigenous people in Surrey are homeless

At least one in 26 Indigenous people have experienced homelessness in Surrey, according to a 2020 Metro Vancouver count detailed with more data in a report called Finding Our Way Home: Indigenous Homelessness in Surrey.

This number was not surprising to Lyn Daniels, co-chair of SUILC who conducted the data-gathering for the report released last month.

When the committee was formed in 2015 and members engaged with local Indigenous people, “housing and homelessness and poverty was at the top of a lot of peoples’ minds,” she said.

Through interviews conducted with those impacted, Indigenous individuals cited barriers to accessing housing, including racial housing discrimination, unaffordability, inter-generational trauma, weak or no connections to their home community – but a desire to reconnect with it – and mental and physical disabilities that affected their capability to earn an income.

Trauma sustained from the experience of residential schools, either directly or generationally, was cited as one of the most common pathways into homelessness for Indigenous people in Surrey.

“The legacy of colonialism and racist policies such as residential schools have created conditions of poverty and social and cultural disconnection for many Indigenous individuals. These conditions increase an individual’s vulnerability to homelessness. This is reflected across Canada broadly and Surrey specifically,” the report reads.

Daniels and SUILC are calling on the city, province and Canada as a whole to tackle Indigenous homelessness in a meaningful way, by introducing more Indigenous housing units in Surrey that offer additional supports, either within them or nearby.

Even though urban Indigenous populations in Surrey are comparable to Vancouver, Surrey had less than one-fifth the number of Indigenous housing units, the report states.

Indigenous people experiencing homelessness are much more likely to be younger, female, live with addiction or identify as 2SLGBTQIA+, when compared to non-Indigenous people experiencing homelessness.

Most people interviewed revealed that they do not use shelters and actually “preferred to be outside” due to feeling unwelcome or unsafe, Daniels added.

Indigenous people feeling connected to their cultures is crucial and without it, “isolation, depression and anxiety (and) mental health challenges” can thrive, Daniels said.

Having services that are led by Indigenous people themselves is another important feature to addressing the issue because “without Indigenous people working in organizations, they won’t understand our situation. They don’t understand what it means to be an inter-generational survivor of residential schools.”


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Sobia Moman

About the Author: Sobia Moman

Sobia Moman is a news and features reporter with the Peace Arch News.
Read more