Last Thursday, a homeless man named Joey laid eyes on his new home for the first time.
His eyes darted around the room as he took a tour.
“Compared to living on the streets, this is like club med,” Joey said with a smile.
What was a muddy, vacant property off King George Boulevard just two months ago has been transformed into one of three modular housing sites for 160 of Surrey’s homeless living along 135A Street, or in nearby shelters.
Joey, along with a handful of reporters, were given an exclusive tour of the temporary modular homes last week ahead of move-in dates set for June 19 to 21. The project is being touted as an “emergency solution to meet the urgent need” of the homeless population in Whalley.
“Well it feels like I’m not going to be homeless,” Joey said after walking into his new room. “It’s very nice, very nice. Cozy, for one person, you know what I mean?
“Oh my own washroom, eh?” he added. “I like that.”
Joey has been homeless for four years, living on 135A Street before finding himself a spot in local shelters.
A former amateur boxer, Joey said it was overwhelming to see his new home.
“I’m just looking forward to moving in,” he said. “When you’ve lived that kind of lifestyle on the streets, it’s not easy right? This is very nice.”
By BC Housing’s count, 173 people live along the infamous stretch of road. That’s in addition to those staying at four shelters in the area, including Gateway, Parkway, Boulevard and Guildford shelters.
But BC Housing says everyone along 135A Street will be offered a warm place to sleep at night this week, whether it’s in one of the new 160 modular homes or in a shelter.
“We’re pretty confident that everyone will accept,” said Brenda Prosken, BC Housing’s regional director, during the media tour.
The people moving into modular suites have been chosen through “thorough, thoughtful assessments,” Prosken said.
Each of those selected to move in will receive a card that identifies which site they’re going to, what day they would move in, and they will each receive two bins to put their belongings in, with some extra storage available on-site.
Drug use will be allowed in the homes. The buildings each have safe-consumption rooms, and those who move in will be given naloxone training, in an effort to reduce overdoses since provincial statistics reveal roughly 90 per cent of overdoses are occurring indoors.
Prosken also said animals will be allowed, and that there will be no curfew, or time-of-day limits for visitors, who will be allowed to stay overnight.
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. In all, the provincial government is allocating approximately $15.8 million to the project, and $1 million in operating funding per site, per year.
Joey said not everyone he has talked to is as happy as he is about the modular homes.
He said some people have expressed fears about the project having prison-like conditions.
“But I think those are the people who maybe never got in. A lot of people have different mixed emotions about it, but I think the majority of the people are pretty excited about moving in.”
For Joey, it will be a step up from the Parkway shelter where he stays.
“We have our own privacy now,” he said of the modular units, for which each tenant will have a wristband, that will act as the key to their door. “Our doors lock, so we don’t have to worry about our stuff getting stolen.”
Joey hopes the home will make life easier for him. Right now, he said he’s enrolled in an eight-week culinary arts course in Vancouver.
“It’s a chore every day, just getting up and trying to motivate yourself to do anything positive,” he said. “But I’m really happy about these places I’m going to be moving into real soon… Maybe it’ll give people motivation to do something positive in their life.”
Joey’s new home, and the other 159 units, each have a bed, a chair and desk, a fridge, microwave, drawers, closet, and a self-contained bathroom. When they move in, each tenant will also receive a welcome package, filled with things such as hangers, slippers, coffee travel mug and toiletries.
Meals will be provided, cooked in a kitchen on-site, and there will be access to counselling as well as life- and employment-skills programs.
Terry Waterhouse, Surrey’s public safety director, 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 wanted to create the kind of relationships that could be utilized to work with individuals who are the most resistant to ensure we understand their needs,” Waterhouse told the Now-Leader. “And what we’re finding is when we understand their needs, and we ensure we’re meeting those needs, and then individuals see the proof, that there is actually something there, that resistance starts to shift.”
Previous strategies to house the homeless were individualized, Waterhouse noted.
“People would have an outreach worker and some supplements were provided,” he explained.
“We would look just around the community for available housing stock there might be. It was a very individualized approach, and a lot of resources. And what happened was a lot of those people were recycling, and coming back to 135A, because they have community on 135A.”
“We all need community, we all need relationships, and when individuals are moved in the first instance, they won’t stay,” Waterhouse added. “You wouldn’t stay and I wouldn’t stay. We’ve been advocating for a model which is closer to home for them – that’s why all of these three units, you can walk between all three. That’s not a coincidence, that’s absolutely intentional.”
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.
Waterhouse said city officials are “very keen” on this model, which is part of the city’s Affordable Housing Strategy.
“We’re also very keen that we have the kind of support we do from Fraser Health and BC Housing to ensure we have a made-in-Surrey approach to the individuals who have been living in our community in substandard circumstances until now,” he added.
The 160 units are also “phase one” for the people who are moving into them, and it’s hoped they will transition into the 250 permanent homes, before ultimately making their way back to market housing.
An Intensive Case Management (ICM) Team has been set up to support those living in the temporary units, as part of a “Housing First” strategy, to connect tenants to services and treatment.
During a media tour of the units last week, Waterhouse said enhancements to the exterior are forthcoming.
The modular units, now grey with a bit of yellow, are to be painted green, he said.
“In addition we’ll be providing additional landscaping, there will be trees put in, to make the exteriors look more pleasing but also to make them more comfortable for people whose home this is. There’s a gazebo, a dog run. We want people to feel comfortable in their home, in their yard, and in their neighbourhood,” added Waterhouse.
Bailey Mumford, who will be running the three modular housing sites for Lookout Housing & Health Society, said most people he talks to are excited about the project.
“We’ve been really surprised. People have been excited to move in. We’ve had people coming up and giving outreach workers hugs, talking about, ‘I’m going to get my stuff in, I’ll have a place for my dog, my cats, I can reconnect with my family.’”
Why was that surprising?
“I think because everybody wants housing all the time, and in this situation here, this housing may not be what they initially had chosen to come in to because it was provided for them,” Mumford replied.
“That being said, once we’ve started talking to people about what the rooms are like and the services that are provided and the services that are available for them, that anxiety goes away… It’s a big transition coming in from sleeping on a tent on the street, or in a park, to coming into a place where you actually have a roof over your head, you actually have some extra safety and security. That’s a big step.”
While some of Surrey’s homeless are excited to move into their new home, others aren’t sure if they’ve got a spot.
Wanda Stopa is one.
Stopa returned to 135A this month after spending 17 months in prison. Last July, she was found guilty of trafficking in a controlled substance and possession for the purpose of trafficking.
“It’s not the same place as when I left,” said Stopa while standing on 135A Street last Thursday. “I came back and this is not my home anymore. I was shocked at the filth. I hate to say it.”
Asked if the province’s estimate that there were 173 homeless people living along 135A was accurate, Stopa replied, “Oh, there’s more than that. I’d say 250 at least. You see all the tents set up.”
That day, there were about 80 on the Strip.
Stopa has her heart set on landing a modular unit.
“I would love a spot, I don’t want to be out there. I’m 50 this year and I’ve had enough.”