Vivian-Lee Wareing is currently staying at Hyland House shelter. The 56-year-old found herself without a permanent home after a medical issue that saw her lose her left leg last year. The former longtime Canada Post worker says she’s ‘never known what it was like inside a shelter

Fewer people on the street in Surrey

Homeless count numbers hopeful, but shelter clients are getting older, sicker.

She didn’t notice the cut she got on her foot more than a year ago.

The small slice got infected though, and on June 7 last year, doctors cut her left leg off below the knee.

Vivian-Lee Wareing stayed with a friend briefly after her hospital stay, but had to leave when her friend’s father became ill.

Since March 16, 2011, Vivian-Lee has stayed at Hyland House shelter.

The 56-year-old, who worked for Canada Post for two decades, previously owned a daycare, catering service and restaurant, while wintering in Arizona. She couldn’t have seen this coming in her wildest dreams.

“I’ve never known what it was like inside a shelter, let alone be in one,” Wareing said. She has plans to get an apartment in White Rock within the next couple of months, but others with complex medical conditions at Hyland won’t be so lucky.

Michael ParmiterMichael Parmiter, 46 (left), is diabetic and also lost a leg. He’s also blind in one eye and may lose sight in the other. He found himself at Hyland after a disagreement with family. He’s living day by day, and when asked where he sees himself in five years, he looks puzzled.

“Really?” he asks. “Dead.”

He can’t see a future that far ahead.

Wareing and Parmiter are just two of the 157 sheltered homeless in Surrey, a figure that’s gone up by 62 over the last three years.

The good news is most of the increase is from people living on the streets – a population which has dropped by 25 per cent since 2008.

A regional count of the homeless on March 16 of this year shows the number of homeless people on the street in Metro Vancouver dropped by 843, or 54 per cent since the last count three years ago (see story, page 4).

The preliminary figures show Surrey now has 231 street homeless and 157 sheltered.

Peter Fedos, manager of Newton’s Hyland House graduated housing, says the numbers show the homeless are being brought in from the street. But what the figures don’t show, he said, are the complex needs of the homeless, such as Wareing and Parmiter.

Clients are getting older and sicker, Fedos said, adding Surrey needs more supported housing to deal with growing medical issues and mental health challenges.

“They may be off the streets, but there are people in the system that have never used it before,” Fedos said. “The population (using the shelter) is older, and they’ve got a lot more complex health issues too… until you deal with those complex needs, you can’t even look at housing.”

Surrey Coun. Judy Villeneuve, president of Surrey’s Homelessness and Housing Society, is pleased by the homeless count figures, but agrees with Fedos that there’s still much to do.

She says many of the people living on the street are the working poor – people with jobs that don’t pay enough to cover housing costs.

Villeneuve says what’s needed is decent living wage in this province, particularly given the high price of accommodation.

Surrey began a push some time ago to get people into permanent housing. With the help of outreach workers, that has become reality for many.

“My concern lies in that I don’t think we’re getting our fair share of funding for outreach workers,” said Villeneuve, also the co-chair of the Metro Vancouver Housing Corporation. Surrey has six outreach workers, whereas Vancouver has 17, Kelowna has seven and even Victoria has more outreach workers than Surrey.

“Considering our geographic layout, which is the largest of all of those cities,” Villeneuve said. “The fact that we’re taking in 1,000 new people a month, we really need funding for outreach workers.”

She believes many of the people living without shelter may have mental health needs, or other long-term care issues that require outreach workers to establish a trust.

Villeneuve gives some credit to the province, which has invested funds into affordable housing, such as Timber Grove Apartments (an Olympic Legacy project) with 52 suites.

She said the federal government needs to step up and create a fully funded national housing strategy.