SURREY — There is hope, but also angst and uncertainty as BC Housing and the City of Surrey began moving homeless people into 160 modular housing units in Whalley on Tuesday.
Several homeless people along the Whalley Strip told the Now-Leader they didn’t get a spot, including one couple, Kenneth Howe and Tabitha Mouner.
“I’m camped somewhere else,” said Howe. “I don’t camp down here because of my dogs.”
But they hang out on the street every day, he said, after finding themselves homeless following an eviction last year when their landlord decided to sell.
“You have thousands of people applying for the same place,” said Howe, noting it’s especially hard with their two pit bulls. “Landlords get to cherry pick.”
Both would like a spot in the modular homes.
How would that change their life?
“It’d be a lot easier with the dogs and stuff, to get things back to normal,” said Mouner. “The routine…. We wouldn’t have to worry about if we have to move today, or move tomorrow.”
“I could back to work on a regular basis, not periodically,” Howe chimed in.
— Amy Marie Reid (@amyreid87) June 19, 2018
City of Surrey’s Public Safety Director Terry Waterhouse told reporters Tuesday that the city expects to have everyone offered a bed by the end of the week, between the 160 new modular units and roughly the same amount of shelter spaces locally.
Roughly 80 tents lined the sidewalk Tuesday, and the city estimated 173 people are living along the road.
The aim is to have the street cleared by the weekend, said Waterhouse.
Is that realistic?
Not if you ask Mouner and Howe.
“Where is everyone going who didn’t get accepted?” asked Mouner, because not everyone wants to accept a shelter bed.
The couple said they don’t like shelters because people come and go 24/7, making it hard to sleep.
“Stuff gets stolen,” added Mouner. “And it’s hard with the dogs.”
Meantime, business owner Paul Chen said the plan is “not a solution, it’s containment.”
According to Chen, having the street cleared of tents by the end of the week is “not a realistic goal.”
“I don’t think they can guarantee anything. That’s a PR stunt,” said Chen. “Even if there’s no tents (during the day), they’ll still sleep there, then in the morning tear it down. It’s like going back two and a half years ago. They’re still here.”
Chen said BC Housing didn’t consult with him at all.
“They just gave us information, this is what we’re going to do,” said Chen.
“We just want to be part of the conversation,” he said. “They just say this is the way it is.”
Chen, who runs Centreline Auto Repair, looks out at 135A Street from the front window of his business.
By his estimation, his business has an average of one break-in every month. Chen said he’s spent $30,000 on security equipment alone, including high fencing and several security cameras, not to mention the costs associated with break-ins.
“I lose money every year. It’s just getting worse, especially the last two years,” said Chen, who moved his business from Newton to Whalley four years ago.
For Chen, the problems his business faces will persist, because the people will still be in the area, as will the services.
“Why don’t you build somewhere else?” he said of the Whalley area. “Why are you putting the people here, and the services here? If we can provide a better, safer place for them to stay then why don’t we all move them there. All the services in a place that’s safe, people can go visit them…. It’s money not well spent. The city has lots of property somewhere more remote.
“All we want is a safe place to operate our business,” Chen added. “The city won’t give me breaks on anything – I still pay my property tax. They get all the benefit out there. It’s a double standard. No — triple…. Whose fault is it? City and province. We just lose money.
“Me, my neighbours around here, we just shake our head, and hopefully one day you get out of here, and retire or do something else,” he said.
Pivot Legal Society has also expressed concerns about the modular housing units and the removal of the “Surrey Strip” encampment.
“We caution against seeing this as the final solution” the group said in an email “and believe more must be done to address homelessness in B.C.”
Michael Musgrove of Surrey Urban Mission has been out feeding 135A residents all day. Says vibe has been “peaceful” all day and most people have been happy. Says he’s “optimistic” about the new housing. #SurreyBC pic.twitter.com/y9HXknHEhP
— Amy Marie Reid (@amyreid87) June 19, 2018
Early Tuesday morning, Michael Musgrove of Surrey Urban Mission Society was on 135A Street, serving breakfast and later, hot dogs for lunch.
Musgrove described the atmosphere on the Strip as “very peaceful.”
“I haven’t seen one angry person, but they were just mad at me so that’s OK,” he chuckled. “It can be stressful. Moving is stressful. But it’s been more positive stress.”
Musgrove said “the best thing right now is to be optimistic and supportive and just hope for the best. We can say, ‘We want housing, we want housing, we want housing,’ then when it comes start bashing it. But until you give it a chance, then you’re just kind of part of the problem. And we don’t want to be part of the problem. We want to support the folks who are getting in, and the folks that aren’t getting in, because there are going to be more opportunities.
“I’m optimistic right now, I think it’s a good time.”
At a 1 p.m. media briefing, BC Housing and the City of Surrey stressed that their goal was to have the street clear of tents by week’s end.
As for those that remain?
“We’ll work with them directly,” said Waterhouse. “As that number gets smaller, we’ll make sure we understand what their needs are, and we will address those needs” through outreach workers.
“At that point it becomes an individual one-on-one conversation,” he added. “All indications at this point, for us, are that people are appreciative of the housing. We have a goal of by the end of the week, having filled all of those available spots, and we believe we will accomplish that goal.”
The city was questioned repeatedly on if it or the RCMP would seek an injunction to have people removed if some homeless refused to leave.
“We will face whatever the situation is on a daily basis… At the end of the week we will reassess where we’re at and determine what other actions are required at that point to ensure all the individuals have the housing that they deserve,” said Waterhouse. “Our goal is to provide enough housing that every individual that we’re aware of that is in that area will be provided accommodation in a shelter or in those transitional accommodation units.”
Waterhouse said the city believes this project will make a dramatic difference in the size of Surrey’s homeless population, noting than 600 people in Surrey were identified in last year’s Metro Vancouver Homeless Count.
“We’ve never had this influx at any one time of housing, especially housing that’s built into the type of continuum of care that we’ve been advocating for for some time now,” Waterhouse said Tuesday.
“In order to move individuals from unstable, homelessness into stability and success, requires a continuum. That continuum has to first of all meet those individuals where they’re at, assess their needs, provide intensive supports in the beginning, then transition them along to that type of independent housing down the road that will meet their needs. That’s the model we have right now and we believe it will make a significant difference and we’ll continue to build out that model over the coming years.”
Waterhouse said the plan has been 18 months in the making. That length of time was due, in part, to ensuring officials understood the needs of Surrey’s homeless, he said.
“We are truly in this together,” Waterhouse added. “There is now enough stock for every individual that we understand is requesting housing, and we’re confident that the plan that we have in place meets the needs.”
The dozens of new units are spread over three sites the City of Surrey is leasing in Whalley, at 10662 King George Blvd., 13550 105th Ave. and 13425 107A Ave. Each building will be have two employees working 24/7, run by Lookout Housing & Health Society, and drug use will be allowed. In all, the provincial government is allocating approximately $15.8 million to the project, and $1 million in operating funding per site, per year.
The 160 units opening this week is just phase one.
Phase two involves the province building 250 permanent supportive housing units, to replace the 160 temporary homes. The goal is to have the first permanent site open at the end of 2019.