Keir Macdonald, CEO of Phoenix Society, in the organization’s winter shelter it set up Tuesday night as temperatures dropped in the city. (Photo: Amy Reid)

Two emergency weather shelters open early in Surrey

Cold temperatures prompt early opening of the extreme weather beds in Cloverdale, North Surrey

More than a dozen mats were set up in a frenzy Tuesday night as staff at Phoenix Society sprung into action after getting the call that extreme weather shelter beds were needed in a matter of hours.

“It was a bit of a scramble, but we made it work,” said Keir Macdonald, CEO of Phoenix Society, which runs one of two emergency response shelters in Surrey that opened on Oct. 29, along with Pacific Community Church in Cloverdale.

Although the provincial extreme weather response program doesn’t officially begin until Nov. 1, the pair of Surrey operators opened their doors to the homeless two days early due to cold temperatures, with BC Housing’s approval.

And it was an eventful night one to the season, with one man who came in from the cold experiencing an elevated heart rate some time after arriving at Phoenix, located near Surrey Memorial Hospital.

“His heart rate was 250/100. We were in serious cardiac territory. Had that individual then left to the streets, you don’t know what would have happened. So it was a really fortunate story of what’s possible,” said Macdonald, noting Phoenix’s nursing staff were able to jump in immediately to provide care.

READ MORE: ‘We’re not prepared’: Concern over lack of extreme weather shelter space in Newton

This is the second year Phoenix has operated an extreme weather shelter. A man who came in from the cold in 2018 has now worked his way through Phoenix’s continuum of housing all the way through to having his own home again.

“He was really struggling with health, 105 pounds, lots of other complex medical conditions going on including fractures to his feet, he was in a wheelchair, so he had an extended stay in Surrey Memorial,” said Macdonald. “While he was in Surrey Memorial he was connected to a couple of different health teams and those teams were able to secure a bed here so while he was in hospital getting well, he then had a place to land when he was getting discharged which is often half the challenge, particularly given he was going to be in a wheelchair and has been for much of his stay here.”

That man completed his treatment program through Phoenix last week, and moved into his own suite this past Monday, said Macdonald.

“It’s a big success story in terms of what’s possible. I don’t want to pretend that is the norm, but you need these success stories, you need to see that people can access a service and even if it’s just getting warm that night, getting some food in their belly – or maybe you connect them to housing or shelter, somewhere they can stay longer-term. In our case, sometimes, they’re just neglecting the health issues. A big plus for us is having the nursing staff we do here, if someone presents with a pretty severe medical condition like last night.”

Although some extreme weather shelters opened Tuesday night, they weren’t called to remain open Wednesday as the weather no longer met the threshold for opening.

In Surrey, the beds are called to open if temperatures are at or below 0 degrees Celsius, if there if significant snow or rain, or significant windstorms that “may present danger to persons living in wooded areas and/or makeshift shelters.” Wind, rain and snow weather alerts can also prompt an opening.

Meantime, there’s ongoing concern about a lack of extreme weather shelters in some areas of the city.

Last year, for the first time, the City of Surrey allowed extreme weather shelter beds to open in civic space. The city permitted operators to use the North Surrey rec centre, allowing 30 extreme weather beds to be set up inside. This year, that’s off the table seeing as the facility is shutting down operations within a matter of months.

Now, there’s a push for the city to continue to offer civic space, but this year, in Newton.

In early October, Councillor Brenda Locke said the city should “absolutely” lend city facilities to the Extreme Weather Response (EWR) program.

“We must look for space in Newton and if we can’t find it, then it has to be civic space,” said Locke. “We didn’t have any (spaces) in Newton last year and it was problematic. It will be problematic again this year.”

“We were lucky last year, our winter was comparatively easy,” said Locke of last year’s season. “We had that little two week stretch, but for the most part we didn’t have a really bad winter. The way this fall is going I don’t know what to expect this year. But we’re not prepared.”

Locke also expressed concern about a shortfall in spaces for Whalley and Guildford.

“That whole Whalley Guildford area, the north area in general is a concern. Newton it going to be a concern. Just about all of our EWR beds last year, when we really needed them, were all utilized. We don’t have empty spaces.”

While the last regional homeless count identified 602 homeless people in Surrey, Locke said there’s “no question” there’s been an increase in recent years. And, the 602 was a 49 per cent increase from the 403 homeless people identified in the previous 2014 count.

“We have tent villages in Surrey all over the place,” she said, noting the “Sanctuary” tent city just off of King George Boulevard near Bridgeview is just one.

“South Surrey, Fraser Heights, they’re all over the city and there’s lots, certainly, in all our big parks,” she said. “You get this kind of wet, if this stays for any length of time, and add to that the cold? It’s a bad situation.”

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

See more: More than 100 seniors living on Surrey streets: homeless count

There are an estimated 140 extreme weather beds that can be called to open across Surrey, White Rock and Delta, if needed.

Nightshift Street Ministries in Whalley will once again open 15 beds specifically for women, and Pacific Community Resource Society will have 10 “youth” beds. In Cloverdale, Pacific Community Church has 30 spots available, and Star of the Sea Catholic Church in White Rock is offering 30 beds.

Phoenix has another 15 beds (five for women, 10 for men), Fraser Region Aboriginal Friendship Centre has another 12 beds and the Guildford shelter on 104th Avenue is making 15 spaces available for men only. In Delta, Ladner United Church has 15 beds available.

These are in addition to the 150-plus permanent shelter beds in Whalley that are typically full every night, and 160 units of temporary modular housing in Whalley.

The EWR program is a provincially funded initiative that officially runs from Nov. 1 to March 31. The beds, often mats on the floor of a building, open “to provide additional temporary emergency shelter spaces during periods of extreme winter weather which threaten the health and safety of individuals experiencing homelessness,” according to BC Housing.

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