The Hard Times of Surrey’s Homeless

The City is doing “as much as possible,” but is it enough?
Joseph Keller, Staff Writer

(Nat Mussell)

There’s no good time of year to be homeless, in Whalley or anywhere else.

Activists who work with the homeless say that there isn’t enough being done to bring these people out of the cycle that keeps them on the street, or to care for them while they’re exposed to the elements.

The winter months present obvious problems for those on the streets, but the summertime can be just as brutal. This past summer, Surrey-based activist Erin Schulte has been fighting for the installation of a temporary water fountain on 135a Street in the heart of Whalley to help protect homeless citizens from the effects of heat stroke and dehydration. Unlike those of us with regular access to shelter, they are left exposed to extreme conditions.

Schulte started an online petition in June for the installation of the temporary fountain, which had been installed to a fire hydrant by the city during past summers but was not installed this year. The petition has gained nearly 800 online signatures to date, but city officials say that the fountain can not be kept under sanitary conditions. Instead, the city has adopted a policy of handing out bottled water with the help of local non-profit organisations.

“It may not [always] be the city that’s handing out the water, but it is definitely being handed out,” says Surrey City Councillor Vera LeFranc.

Still, Schulte believes that the frequency of handouts has not been enough to adequately substitute the fountain. She sees the fight for the water fountain as symptomatic of a larger fight for basic support for Surrey’s most vulnerable inhabitants.

“They aren’t looking after the homeless population,” says Schulte. “They’re looking after the street.”

Schulte has been working closely with homeless people in Surrey for several years. In 2014 she founded the Surrey Pop Up Soup Kitchen Movement, which has since been a fixture on 135a Street for dishing out meals that are “made with love”—something that she says is lacking from other services offered to Surrey’s poorest. She views the homeless residents of Whalley as family and would like to see them given the same level of respect as more financially secure residents of the city.

“When people tell me, ‘Why do you bother [spending] your time on addicts, worthless junkies who don’t want anything better in their life? It’s just a matter of a decision,’ that has to be the hardest thing for me to hear. It gets me upset because I’ve invested a lot in these people and I love the hell out of them,” says Schulte. “They’re worth it. I just wish more people agreed.”

The attitude displayed towards the homeless in Surrey is unacceptable, according to Schulte, though she understands why it exists. She acknowledges the sheer amount of garbage left around Whalley by the homeless population but pleads for understanding for a group that is overwhelmingly affected by addiction and mental illness.

After all, on a daily basis, Schulte witnesses the day-to-day challenges that come with simply existing when one is forced to live outdoors.

Keeping what little belongings the homeless have tends to be among the biggest challenges. Under Surrey bylaws, homeless people are forced to disassemble their tents by 7:00 a.m. sharp or risk having their belongings taken and thrown out. Not only does this leave them exposed to the elements during the day, it also puts them at risk of losing all that they own. It’s difficult to imagine returning from using a public restroom to find that everything you had in the world has been hauled away to the dump—but for the homeless, it can become a reality on any given day.

“I know people who have lost their medication,” says Schulte. “I know people who have lost their last family photos of their children who have been taken into foster care. I know a guy whose grandpa’s military medals he’d held on to for years and years and years and those we’re taken.”

On top of this, Schulte says that she has seen police and bylaw officers being verbally abusive to homeless people, actively undermining their trust in the institutions that are supposed to be helping them step out of poverty.

“I’ve seen things done by police that I thought [weren’t] even allowed. They’ve got the worst job in the world some days but there’s a way that you have to treat humans and there’s a level of respect even when they’re not respecting you,” she says.

What Schulte believes is that the city’s response needs to include is a greater focus on transitional housing that goes beyond temporary shelters. She says that the conditions of some Surrey homeless shelters are rough enough that sleeping outdoors can be the preferable option.

“The truth is, if I was homeless, I would choose to live in a tent outside because you’re either sleeping on a mat on the floor with less than three feet between you and the next guy and no privacy at all [at shelters], or you’re in bunk beds with three feet between you,” she says.

In addition to housing, Schulte believes a greater focus on education and job training is desperately needed for Surrey’s homeless, particularly for those coming out of prison who often find themselves back on the street and in the conditions that lead them into legal trouble in the first place.

”Give them something to do,” she says. “They have nothing to do but sit on the street.”

Schulte adds that the city’s response to the growing problem of homelessness has, in her eyes, been hugely inadequate, that city officials are out of touch with the realities of homelessness. She asks that city officials spend more time on the ground in direct contact with the city’s homeless to gain a better understanding.

City officials say that municipal governments around the province are doing what they can to help with this complex issue. As a board member of the Surrey Homelessness and Housing Society, City Councilor Vera LeFranc has overseen the handing out of millions of dollars in grants to initiatives around the city to help people in poverty. The Surrey Homelessness and Housing Society was provided with $9 million in funds in 2007 to address the then-emerging homelessness issue and has since given out $3.5 million to various initiatives.

“I just think it’s important for people to understand and know the facts about what is happening,” says LeFranc. “I go down to 135a at least once a week to talk to the people and to remember that the outreach workers and the people that are working down there day-to-day are on the front lines. They see the pain and the trauma that is happening and the human misery and it’s really difficult.”

“It’s important for people to know that we are working as hard as we can to get this situation under control and I think that we are doing some really positive things that are working,” she adds.

The Housing Society funding has thus far gone to low income housing projects and to the creation of 120 shelter beds in the last two years, a figure that LeFranc describes as unprecedented.

“It is really all hands on deck. This is really extreme. We’ve never seen [anything] like it, and so when you look at Surrey compared to other cities across the region, you can see that we really are doing things in a very holistic, pragmatic, and very intensive way,” she says. “If somebody asks me, ‘Could we do more?’ I’d say perhaps that’s so, but I’d say we are really doing as much as possible at this time.”

One area that Schulte and LeFranc are in total agreement on is the urgency of Metro Vancouver’s affordable housing crisis, and how this issue creates a barrier for people trying to escape homelessness.

“The lack of affordable housing is our biggest crisis,” says LeFranc. “It used to be that Surrey had a more affordable housing stock and affordable rental, but our vacancy rate dipped below one per cent.”

Since people have a choice of who to rent to, they don’t tend to pick people coming directly from the street, making affordable housing difficult to find for homeless people.

“The lack of affordable housing is our biggest crisis,” says LeFranc. “Shelters are really not the best response to homelessness. We really want to see people in stable housing where they have control over their units, that they have a relationship with their landlord and that they receive the supports that are wrapped around them. That is really what we would like to see so that they don’t end up back on the streets.”