A bundled-up woman walks past Surrey Urban Mission, pulling a blue shopping basket filled with everything she owns.
A larger buggy sits outside the doors of the Whalley shelter, which is just beginning its daily lunch service. This buggy is also filled with someone’s belongings. An unzipped sleeping bag keeps them concealed.
Steps away from the building’s front door is a makeshift shelter covered with icy cardboard and what appears to be burlap.
Wanda Stopa sits inside with one of her two dogs, 14-year-old Cheyenne. Wearing a parka with a fur-lined hood, she rubs her hands together after coming in from the cold.
Stopa and her pets spent the night at the Surrey Urban Mission Society’s shelter the night prior.
“I’m just tired,” she told the Now-Leader outside Surrey Urban Mission Society (SUMS) Monday.
“There’s still tons of us out here on the streets that aren’t even in shelters. They’re full before the doors even open. For anyone to say there’s no issues?
“They’re dead wrong.”
Stopa said she spends most of her days outdoors.
“It was really, really cold yesterday. I put a tarp over me, myself and my dogs. I have a little heater I use and that’s how we stay warm. There is nowhere. You go to park areas, and you get kicked out.”
Stopa was one of the 135A Street residents who called for homes to be built for the tent city population in recent years, ahead of 160 “temporary” modular units for the homeless being opened by the City of Surrey and the province last summer.
She remains homeless today, after being released from jail last June. She had served time after being convicted of possession of a controlled substance for the purpose of trafficking.
“I was thrown out of jail with nothing. Where am I going to go? I was one of the ones pushing and fighting for housing before I went to jail,” she said, insisting she’s cleaned up her act and just wants housing. “I’m still waiting. I’m asking for help.”
Stopa holds out hope she’ll be accepted into a modular unit.
“I can’t take much more,” said Stopa. “I’m almost to the point where I’m going to go back to the bush. I don’t want to be in the bush. I have bronchitis now.”
“Being in right now is so important because it’s so cold. There needs to be more housing for people in our situation. We go to rent somewhere and as soon as they hear we’re on welfare, they say ‘No.’ And the price of rent today is incredible. I’m getting very tired. I pray everyday and hope everyday that somebody out here is going to say, ‘Here’s something for you to live in.’”
Stopa shared her story the same day Langley RCMP revealed a homeless person arrested last weekend said he committed a crime simply to get out of the cold.
SUMS executive director Mike Musgrove says things are busy at the mission this winter.
“Very busy. There’s lots going on. We have 50 beds,” he explains, which are cots that are set up nightly, then taken down every morning to make way for tables to serve food. “We’re turning people away every night.”
Musgrove said a primary concern right now is how cold it is.
“I didn’t think this is where things were going when I started here three years ago, that I’d be running a shelter with seniors on cots,” said Musgrove. “Don’t get me wrong they love being here because it’s way better than being out in the cold. We try to run a real family community here, and try to keep things loving and peaceful, but it’s still, when it all comes down it, it’s seniors on cots.”
(Michael Musgrove sits on one of the cots used in the Surrey Urban Mission shelter. Photo: Amy Reid)
Musgrove said people are setting up shelters around town.
“Folks are still suffering. There’s still a lot of non-housed residents in this city looking for houses. Looking for places to live.”
SUMS is one of several local shelters. In addition to shelters, other locations open during extreme weather conditions. Surrey’s extreme weather shelters have been called to open until at least Thursday, at this point, given the colder-than-normal temperatures this week.
The city estimates there are about 100 of these “extreme weather” beds across Surrey. Organizers have been saying for months there is a shortfall in the city’s north end this winter, as many spaces previously used in emergency weather situations have become actual shelters.
(A makeshift shelter set up just steps away from the front door of Surrey Urban Mission, at the corner of 108th Avenue and King George Boulevard. Photo: Amy Reid)
“We’re operating as a warm space today,” said Musgrove Monday, noting that it’s not something they’re technically contracted to do. Neither are the extreme weather facilities, meaning people who sleep there are left to the cold during the day.
“We like to encourage people to do other things, to go out and go to the library and go to the mall, just to be active, to be moving as opposed to be in one room all day long. However on a day like today and a week that it looks like we’re going to be having, we really wanted a place for people to be. For some, it’s hard to even walk the two blocks to the mall.”
Musgrove said in the last three years, the mission has gone from 1.5 staff members to 30 today.
That growth isn’t necessarily being celebrated.
“I never intended to start an empire here or something,” he said. “I would like for numbers to be dropping as opposed to increasing. And I’d love to see housing - appropriate housing - coming in. The reality is we still have 170 people living in shelters just in this area. That’s not even the modulars. There’s 160 in there. Those are the people we know, and the reality is the shelters are full every night.”
The 160 units of modular housing have a lifespan, as they are on private land leased by the city. The provincial government vows to build 250 permanent replacement units but proposed sites haven’t been released publicly. An application for one location, in Cloverdale’s town centre, was withdrawn last fall amid public opposition.
Musgrove is worried.
“If people think it’s dealt with and we don’t do anything about this?” he said, his voice trailing off.
“What’s going to happen when those leases end? That’s going to be a nightmare. Rightly so, people will be angry, and homeless, and coming to a community near you. If we don’t have supportive housing units in communities and these places, they shut down, then people are going to be going into communities with no supports,” he added. “If we can get people into communities with supports then we can mitigate problems that come up.”
If that happens, Musgrove also worries “we’ll end up with the strip all over again,” but added he doesn’t think the city will allow tents to re-establish there.
“People will end up pushed to other communities.”
Musgrove paused as he acknowledged the job on the front lines can be heart-wrenching.
“It is,” he said slowly. “It gets heavy. It’s hard on the staff and I worry about that. Having to turn people away and say, ‘Sorry, you’re sleeping outside tonight.’ Staff burnout. And of course the folks that are out here. I’m looking out my window and we’ve got seniors out here. One, two, three, maybe four seniors. We’ve got every population, it seems, represented.”
Surrey Councillor Brenda Locke, who used to sit on the board of SUMS, echoed Musgrove’s concerns.
“Once they did the so-called clean up of 135A, everybody went, ‘Wow, okay we fixed it.’ We temporarily put a Band-Aid on it,” she said. “I can tell you if we wont do our due diligence we’ll be right back there in a year and a half from now. There is no sense of relief.”
Locke said she’s asked staff to seek extensions on the leases where the modulars now sit, as staff work to identify potential locations for the 250 units that will permanently replacement the 160 temporary ones in Whalley
She hopes to have them identified this month.
“Once there are one or two shovels in the ground we’re all going to start to feel a lot better,” said Locke. “Right now, it’s kind of tense.”