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VIDEO: Surrey motel being transformed into sanctuary to help heal vulnerable women

Facility on King George Boulevard will be named after teen who died in tent

Serendipity, they say, is an occurrence of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.

An unplanned, fortuitous discovery.

A fluke. A happy chance.

One could argue such is the case at Whalley’s Motel Hollywood. Once a place where women suffered abuse, it is now becoming a sanctuary to help heal them.

The motel, on King George Boulevard near 92nd Avenue, is being transformed into housing for vulnerable women by Atira Women’s Resource Society.

“We know the women they serve experienced a lot of abuse in that place, so to reclaim it is amazing,” Surrey Councillor Vera LeFranc told the Now-Leader.

“I just regret that it took so long to get it under control…. For us, as a city, there were constant problems there and a huge use of police and fire and bylaw resources…. What had happened is we had received so many complaints we had actually pulled their license to operate. We were beyond frustrated with their activities.”

After city hall revoked the motel’s business license due to “constant problems,” the stars aligned, said LeFranc.

“That allowed Atira, then, to purchase it,” she noted.

Atira, which helps some women who suffered abuse at the motel, just so happened to own a nearby property, explained LeFranc.

She said the need for supports for vulnerable women in Surrey is “huge,” noting a third of the city’s homeless population are women.

See more: Count finds 49 per cent more homeless people in Surrey

See more: HOMELESS COUNT: The toll of Surrey streets

And Atira does things right, according to LeFranc.

“Atira has a women-focused philosophy. They are really in tune with what their needs are. They have a trauma-focused care model and I know women are really successful in their programs,” LeFranc said. “We have a lot of fabulous programs in the community that serve women, but we don’t have enough. In the latest budget we didn’t see money for transition houses and stopping the violence.”

Atira CEO Janice Abbott said renovations are already underway, and the site is expected to be ready in mid- to late-April. The renovated motel will offer 23 units of supportive housing for women in Surrey, she said.

“It was a difficult building for women and it is really gratifying for us,” Abbott told the Now-Leader.

The new site will be named after a Surrey woman who died after overdosing in a tent in November of 2016.

Having just turned 19, Santanna Scott-Huntinghawk had recently aged out of the B.C. foster-care system, and her story garnered much media attention. She was one of 122 people who died of drug overdose in Surrey in 2016.

See also: The real story of ‘the girl in the tent’

See also: Surrey overdose death toll jumps to 174 in 2017

See more: More than 1,400 people in B.C. died of drug overdoses in 2017

Questions were raised about how this could happen to a youth that was in government care such a short time before.

The new Atira facility will be called “Little’s Place,” honouring Santanna’s nickname as “Little” due to her short and petite stature.

“We were clearly wanting to rename the building and, to be honest with you, it was nothing more than a synapse that snapped in my brain,” said Abbott of the decision to honour Santanna.

“I didn’t know Santanna personally, and I’m not aware that any of my staff knew Santanna, but I did read her story and like many others, was profoundly moved. I thought naming a building in her honour, in her memory, in honour of her family, and as a reminder that we all have an obligation to young women aging out of care. It’s a place that Santanna, if it had been available when she aged out of care, may have saved her life. It felt right.”

Abbott said many of the organization’s clients are youth who age out of care at 19.

“They go from everything being provided to them to nothing being provided,” Abbott noted. “When you think about your own family, your parents don’t say to you when you turn 19 that you’re on your own.” Abbott said she would like to see more government support for this demographic.

“They’re extremely vulnerable,” she added, “and young women in particular. Young women who are Indigenous and young women of colour face additional barriers and they’re cut off and left to fend for themselves.”

Abbott added she’s pleased to have received the support of Santanna’s family to name the new project after her.

(A submitted photo of Santanna (left) with her sister Savannah.)

Santanna’s older sister, Savannah Scott, told the Now-Leader she is grateful to have her sibling honoured in this way.

“It means the world to me,” she said, standing in front of the motel on Monday. “I’m so honoured to have that. Hopefully it opens more awareness and doors, and opens eyes and hope for the ones that are in need – that they’re not alone, and there is hope and faith out there. We all should be together, doing this as a community, not just looking out for ourselves.”

Savannah, 24, smiled as she said her sister was “a very well-rounded person, she was very outspoken, she loved her family very much. She just wanted all of us to be together. She wasn’t just the girl who passed away in a tent.”

Santanna would have been 21 on April 3.

“There was a lot more to her that everyone needs to know,” Savannah elaborated. “She loved life, and she had a rough go and a rough start. She didn’t have the support she needed, I think.”

Savannah said she and Santanna first entered the foster care system together when they were 11 and seven years old.

“I went away for a few years and when I came back, Santanna had fallen down the path that made us lose her,” she said. “It was really hard for her growing up in care and I think she didn’t have a lot of the support she needed, especially being mentally not all there. She didn’t have the necessities which were needed in order to keep going and to guide her to be successful and to have the opportunities that some of us have.”

Savannah said she feels people gave up on her sister.

“She did try. She really did try. But it just wasn’t there for her,” she continued. “When she was in detox she said everyone made her feel like she was crazy. She had anger management, everyone just gave up on her too quick.”

(Savannah Scott (left) with her sibling Santanna, who died of overdose in a tent in Surrey last year. Photo submitted)

Aging out of government care is a shock, said Savannah, having been through it herself.

“When I aged out, it was literally, there you go. There’s life. It’s hard,” she recalled. “Especially growing up in the system because we’re already vulnerable and not with our families. Just having that extra hand or support would go a really, really long way. It’s a hard transition time.”

Savannah urged others who are struggling not to give up.

“Keep trying,” she said. “Because something amazing like this could happen one day to you. It’s such a tragic thing, but something amazing is coming out of it.”

In late February, the provincial NDP government announced expanded support for youth aging out of care.

The move means young adults who have spent time in government care will get more money for rent, child care and health needs while going to school or attending a rehab, vocational or approved life-skills program. The government says it will invest $7.7 into the initiative for 2018-19 and as of April 1, the Agreements with Young Adults (AYA) program will be expanded to a higher age of 27, and monthly support rates will rise by $250, to a new maximum of $1,250.

“Parents recognize that – with today’s cost of living – young adults need time to figure out their path and steady support to get where they want to go,” said Katrine Conroy, Children and Family Development Minister, in a release. “That’s especially true for children and youth in government care.”

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