In the final analysis, it’s a judgment call.
Peter Fedos, extreme-weather co-ordinator for the BC Housing-funded Greater Vancouver Shelter Strategy, says he looks at weather conditions and makes a best guess – based on past experience – in determining whether an alert is called and Surrey and White Rock’s extreme weather response shelters are opened to the homeless and disadvantaged during the winter months (November through March).
In White Rock and South Surrey, the shelter is operated by First United Church at 15385 Semiahmoo Ave. There are also extreme weather response shelters at Cloverdale Community Kitchen (5337 180 St.), at Hyland House in Newton (6595 King George Blvd.) and two other locations in North Surrey – and they’ve already been opened in response to alert calls a total of three weeks this winter, since the beginning of November (for more information on the shelters, visit www.bchousing.org. or for referral to a shelter, call 211).
“Our floor is zero (Celsius),” Fedos, an Ocean Park resident, said. “That could be anything zero or below. But it could also be weather that presents a significant risk of people either freezing or catching hypothermia.”
Fedos, who works in association with Options Community Services, credits good outreach work by volunteers with First United Church for making the Peninsula’s extreme-weather shelter a success since it was first established five years ago.
“The volunteers in the White Rock area are what makes it work – putting up notices all over, and reaching out to people so that they know the shelters are open.
“With the staff at Options, they have done great community service. It’s grass-roots community development.
“People have embraced the idea and people who are homeless come to us – they know there is a place for them to come,” said Fedos.
Between available shelters in Surrey, Greater Vancouver Shelter Strategy can open up to 100 spaces during periods of extreme weather.
“We’re usually doing about 85,” Fedos said.
People have generally been very accepting of extreme weather shelters, Fedos added, and there have been very few concerns about users of the facilities abusing what is, for them “a shelter of last resort.”
But Fedos said the fact remains that cold-weather shelters – while preventing people from freezing to death – can’t be anything more than “a Band-Aid solution” for underlying problems of poverty and homelessness.
And in spite of an enduring image of White Rock and South Surrey as affluent communities – and jokes about “homeless people sleeping in their BMWs” – the problems won’t go away, Fedos said.
“We’ve got an older population here and anytime there are upticks in rent they start playing that game of ‘do I pay for medications or do I pay for food this month?’” he said.
“That doesn’t go on for too long before there’s a real problem.”
At the same time, there is “next to nothing” available in terms of affordable housing, he said.
White Rock and South Surrey needs a shelter of around 15 beds to accommodate the needs of seniors, Fedos said.
“That would give us some space to be able to develop affordable housing options,” he said. “We need permanent housing, not just environmental shelters – if you can’t get that you just keep recycling the problem.”
“I think it comes as a surprise to a lot of people that there is a problem,” added Neil Fernyhough, co-chair of The Peninsula Homeless to Housing Task Force. “People are falling between the cracks. Sometimes the issue is not people sleeping on the streets – there’s a lot of couch-surfing going on.”
The task force’s Dec. 4 meeting featured guests Julie LeBrun and Diane Halkett of St. Andrew’s United Church in Port Moody.
Fernyhough said the task force will host a followup meeting on Feb. 2 to which 15 White Rock and South Surrey clergymen have been invited in hopes of developing new strategies for addressing homelessness.
Fernyhough said churches may be able to provide long-term solutions to the affordable housing issue, picking up on the idea, proposed several years ago by the board of First United Church, to redevelop its property to include a smaller church and a condominium development.