Surrey Councillor Brenda Locke said it’s “frightening” that the city has no extreme-weather shelter sites open, more than two weeks into the official start of the program that provides temporary places for homeless individuals to sleep during dire weather.
“It’s going to be a problem and if the weather continues, and it looks like it is, we are going to be really challenged,” Locke said Monday, a week after the co-ordinator of the provincially funded Extreme Weather Response (EWR) program begged Surrey city council for helping finding facilities.
“I am talking constantly to city staff to open public facilities. Some we aren’t using anyways – so let’s use some of them,” Locke added. “When the weather turns bad, if we don’t have a plan, people could die. We have to open up city facilities if we don’t find others.”
This is the first year in recent memory that no sites have yet to open at this point in the EWR season, a provincially funded program that officially runs from Nov. 1 to March 31. A few years ago, there were 200 spaces available between various sites in Surrey, but that dwindled to just over 80 last year, and this year just 24 spaces have been secured across a few sites – but are not yet ready to open for various reasons.
The beds, often mats on the floor of a building, open “to provide additional temporary emergency shelter spaces during periods of extreme winter weather which threaten the health and safety of individuals experiencing homelessness,” according to BC Housing.
Locke told the Now-Leader that one of the challenges in securing spaces commercially and via community organizations is that BC Housing, which funds the program, doesn’t pay the rental component of the temporary operations.
“That presents a different level of challenge. If we could get money to pay for space, that would be helpful,” she said, adding that the city should be communicating with BC Housing about the prospect of them paying rental costs. “If we were able to say to church facilities, or community groups, there is wear and tear on your building, there is a financial component to this, that would be helpful. If we’re going into commercial spaces, that would be helpful.”
Alternatively, Locke said the Surrey Homelessness and Housing Society could potentially fund those costs.
“That’s within their mandate,” she said of SHHS, which she previously chaired prior to the volunteer board being dissolved in a closed meeting earlier this year.
Mayor Doug McCallum subsequently appointed Councillor Laurie Guerra to chair the SHHS.
On Monday afternoon, Guerra told the Now-Leader she had just concluded meetings with senior city staff in regard to the matter and said “we’re looking at all the options.”
Discussions, she said, have included the prospect of everything from using city-owned property such as the old Newton Rona site along King George Boulevard, to using unutilized space inside the former North Surrey rec centre, to issuing grant money from SHHS to help pay for anything needed.
“The board at Surrey Homelessness and Housing Society would be willing to have a quick emergency meeting to do that,” said Guerra. “Whatever it’s going to take. We’re looking at churches as well. It’s very complex because of the virus. We have to be social distancing, we can’t have churches opening their doors that are already closed due to COVID.”
Guerra said while city council doesn’t agree on everything, “when it comes to dealing with our vulnerable populations we are unanimous.”
“We’re not going to let our citizens freeze outside,” Guerra stressed. “We will do whatever it takes to not let that happen.”
Locke and Guerra’s comments come one week after Jonquil Hallgate, co-ordinator of Surrey’s Extreme Weather Response operations, pleaded with council for help.
“I guess one of our asks, would be please, please, could mayor and council and members of city staff look at what kinds of spaces might be available,” Hallgate said to council on Nov. 9.
“We have beaten down doors and paths and hit up every faith community. We’ve gone to landlords with empty storefronts, we’ve reached out to anybody and everybody that we possibly could. Part of it is not lots of people are interested in helping to serve our friends, the other piece of it is because of COVID, everyone has restrictions themselves.”
She added: “I really am begging for you guys to see if you can help us mobilize a few spaces that we can open very quickly.”
In response to her delegation to council on Nov. 9, Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum replied that he has written a letter to the province on behalf of council regarding the problem. “We’re working on it as we speak today,” said the mayor at the time. “We understand the problem and we’re working on it as we speak.”
As of the morning of Monday (Nov. 16), Hallgate told the Now-Leader that no site was ready to open in Surrey under the Emergency Weather Response program.
Last season, extreme-weather alerts were called on 99 nights between October 29, 2019 and March 25, 2020.
In January of this year, Hallgate told the Now-Leader that Surrey EWR sites were “all over capacity” because they weren’t turning anyone away.
– Files from Lauren Collins