REID: Help Surrey’s homeless in the heat

WHALLEY — Ever taken a stroll down “The Strip” in Whalley?

I have but only as a reporter.

Growing up in Whalley, behind Queen Elizabeth Secondary, I’ve seen the realities of the street in Surrey.

I spoke with homeless people on many occasions, often at the bus loop at Surrey Central SkyTrain where they’d congregate and ask for change.

I recall seeing prostitutes on the corner at my high school, or just down the road near Motel Hollywood on King George Boulevard.

I don’t share these memories to paint the city in a bad light. But sadly, the realities of the city in my teen years are not all that different today.

Perhaps that fact fuels my passion to delve into social issues in my job as a journalist, and what drove me to become one in the first place.

So when I walked down the Whalley strip on 135A Street on Tuesday – the second time I’d ever done so – I was surprised to feel stunned at what I saw.

I was saddened.

Jonquil Hallgate of the Surrey Urban Mission had invited me to tag along as she handed out water on a particularly hot day. You see, the mission does this when it can to try to avoid street folks getting heat exhaustion. If they’re able, they also hand out hats and sunscreen.

“We don’t want people dying of heat stroke,” she said as we made the jaunt from 108th Avenue to “The Strip,” handing out a few water bottles on the way. She knew many of them by name.

“They don’t have places to go to cool down. Extreme weather is both ends of the spectrum. We often just think of it as being the cold weather,” she added. “But we have people who have vulnerable immune systems, we have a lot of seniors in our community that are homeless, we have lots of people with health issues, so they’re at risk.”

As we made it to the strip, I saw some people who had clearly not slept in days. I saw a crack pipe fall from a man’s bag. Another was fixing a bike he’d “acquired” the day before. Some laid under the sparse shade that was available. Others slept. Others tweaked out.

In that moment, all I could hear were my mother’s words growing up – people are people and deserve dignity, regardless of circumstance.

I don’t know their stories. I don’t know how they ended up there. I don’t know what choices they’ve made or what trauma they’ve endured. But they’re suffering today.

As a mom, I’m aware of the realities of heat exhaustion, as I’ve seen my son go through it. It’s serious and it wouldn’t take much for these folks to get, given their compromised immune systems.

Fraser Health issued a press release last week, noting heat-related illness can be as mild as thirst and dizziness or as severe as death. The health authority recommends people spend the hottest hours of the day – 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. – out of the sun. And stay hydrated, they urge – don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink water.

At Christmastime, we donate – because we care. When freezing temperatures and bouts of rain ensue, we donate blankets, jackets and other essentials. But when it gets hot, what do we do?

I can honestly say I’ve never even thought of donating at this time year. But seeing Hallgate and her helpers hand out roughly 60 bottles of water in a matter of 15 minutes, I urge you to. It’s help that’s needed. While the latest regional homeless count in 2014 suggests 403 people are homeless in Surrey, it’s largely recognized as an undercount. Hallgate estimates the true number is closer to 2,000.

Writing this column, I recognize there are people who don’t see things my way. In fact, I have people in my life who frequently say, “Addicts are addicts, why do they get handouts?” and other things along those lines.

To each their own, I suppose. But when I hear comments like that, I think back to a famous line in Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who! – “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

A society is judged by how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable. Let’s lead the way, Surrey.

Donations of bottled water, hats and sunscreen will be accepted at Surrey Urban Mission, located at 10776 King George Blvd.

Amy Reid is a reporter and photographer with the Now.

She can be reached at amy.reid@thenownewspaper.com

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