Surrey without winter shelter for a second year in a row

SURREY – The cold days of winter are nearly upon Surrey’s homeless population, but after failing to find a suitable location for a winter shelter the city will have to once again go without.


Developed by the City of Surrey in 2012 and administrated by Keys: Housing and Health Solutions, the 40-bed Winter Shelter program in 2012-13 provided 24-hour shelter to 157 people over a span of six months. The successful program led 72 people to finding long-term housing options.


But since the landowner sold the property to a developer in 2013 the city has been unable to find a new location, despite an exhaustive search. According to a council report, staff explored 12 locations in 2013 and a further five in 2014 but ran into concerns expressed by either potential landlords or adjacent tenants.


"I can’t tell you how disappointed I am about that," said Vera LeFranc, manager of Surrey Homelessness and Housing Society and a Surrey First council candidate. "One thing that winter shelters really allow is for full support of homeless folks while they get back on their feet during the winter."


LeFranc said the shelters prevent the more visible homeless presence on the streets, which makes them more suitable than not having them at all.


"I think there’s a lack of understanding of what it means to have a shelter and that’s kind of heartbreaking," she said.


Shayne Williams, who was executive director of Keys: Housing and Health Solutions in Surrey for four years and spent 11 years as an outreach worker in the troubled Whalley neighbourhood, expressed concern about what the council report called "neighbourhood integration issues."


"I think there’s been a long history of homelessness, and street homelessness in particular, in the Surrey North community and that, unfortunately, hasn’t been addressed the way it should be in a proactive manner in terms of investment in social housing and in trying intervention prior to folks becoming street-entrenched," said Williams, referring to people who are no longer willing to leave the streets even when offered accommodation.


Williams said some low-income people who "look homeless" are often judged as a danger by community, even when they’re "precariously housed" and perhaps vulnerable to homelessness.


"The stereotype of crime and safety is, I think, coupling with some of the local, mayoral candidates and some of their platforms," he said.


Surrey participates in the province’s extreme weather response program from Nov. 1 to March 31 to house the homeless in various outreach centres when the temperatures dip below zero Celsius. But without a 24-hour Winter Shelter the options for Surrey’s homeless will be limited.


Jonquil Hallgate of Surrey Urban Mission said extreme weather shelters are only open at night, leaving the homeless to fend for themselves during the day.


When asked about "neighbourhood integration" she said it’s understandable that people who work hard for a living want to live in a safe environment out of the sight of the homeless.


"Even if you have the biggest heart on the planet, seeing somebody pulling their belongings down the street or hanging around in a neighbourhood simply because they have nowhere to go isn’t something that anybody is comfortable with."


Hallgate said that some of the existing shelters, which are housed in old buildings, can’t equip some of the mobility-challenged homeless, or those who have voluntarily become homeless rather than give up their pets.


Others are unwilling to go somewhere they believe their belongings won’t be safe.


"Many because they’re living with mental illness and if they were living indoors they’d probably be considered a hoarder," said Hallgate.


The city currently has 107 permanent shelter spaces and 48 beds for women in safe or transition houses. According to the last Surrey homeless count in the spring, there are 140 unsheltered people of just over 400 total homeless.


LeFranc said Surrey will be exploring two main options to tackling homelessness. The primary focus on a "Housing First" model means moving homeless directly in permanent housing, while also renovating existing shelters to create additional space for the remaining unsheltered homeless.


"We have to understand that there are some people in our community who we aren’t able to work with until they come in from the cold in the wintertime," said LeFranc. "So those folks we want to make sure we have an opportunity to work with them rather than having them sleeping rough and putting themselves at risk and putting themselves in danger."


Hallgate said the City of Surrey’s attempts to eradicate homelessness is "admirable" but the challenge is to get cooperation on funding for housing from various levels of government.


"The federal government doesn’t have an affordable housing plan, it doesn’t have a poverty reduction plan, so the federal dollars are slow to come, if at all."


Hallgate said the city’s contribution to housing is usually donating land but without the money to build infrastructure to support provincial programs there’s a gap in services for the homeless.


In the meantime, the city has identified a location for a new purpose-built shelter and transitional housing facility on 96th Avenue near Surrey Memorial Hospital. However, site suitability, neighbourhood integration, and cost implications would be subject to a public hearing process, not expected until the spring.

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