Deborah Hall beams as she points to dozens of photos of her children, and grandchildren, pinned to the wall of her home inside one of the 160 modular units in Whalley, set up to house the homeless this past summer.
Hall wasn’t clean when she moved in last June, but she’s proud to say she’s been sober for more than two months now.
The best part? Having her family back, says a glowing Hall, 54.
“It feels great, it feels awesome. I feel so healthy, I feel so much better. I can think more, I can see more. I can see my future, getting back into my family’s life, my childrens’ life,” she told the Now-Leader, sitting inside the modular building across from Chuck Bailey rec centre.
If you ask operators of the housing projects, they point to successes like Hall’s. But some in the community say things have gotten “way worse” since their June opening.
Hall, however, credits the modular housing for helping her get clean. She said it wasn’t until she lived there that she felt it was time to get sober, despite attempting to many times before.
“When I see ambulances show up two, three times a day, in the same day, you kinda look at it like, ‘Wow,’” she said.“Do I really want to be in that ambulance? Or do I want to be in a morgue? No. So that changed my mind, seeing people going down on fentanyl and all this, which is very dangerous. It’s sad that people are dying from it. I don’t want to be that person to die. I want to live my life.”
Hall said the modular unit environment gave her the push she needed.
“I was on the street for a bit,” she said. “I ended up at Surrey Urban Mission, then ended up at Cynthia’s Place, a shelter for women and children in Guildford.
“It was good there,” she said of the women’s shelter, “but I have more freedom here.” At the modular unit she was not given a curfew, and could have people visit and sleep over if she wants.
The staff, she added, have been her cheerleaders along the way.
Hall said her life today is a far cry from the one she lived just a few short months ago.
“Before it was like using drugs, getting drunk, partying all the time,” she said. “Now, it’s like I go to work (when she finds it at temp agencies), I go the gym, I go to the library, go on Facebook. I have a life now. It feels great to wake up and be able to eat cereal and have a coffee, instead of a beer,” she grinned.
Timid, but cheerful, Hall recounted her life story: A story full of trauma that began before she was even a teenager when living in East Vancouver. Being handed her first drink of alcohol at age 7. Abused by babysitters at 10 years old. Held down and shot up with PCP at a party the year after.
“Most of my childhood kind of went when I was attacked,” she said. “Kind of blocked it out.”
She was going to night clubs at the age of 12. By 15 years of age, she was an exotic dancer. Later in life, she recalled being abused by a partner. In her mid-20s, she had her two children. They were taken from her and put in foster care and she expressed appreciation to the foster parents who raised her children for 15 years.
“I didn’t really start smoking crack until I was about 26,” Hall said. “I thought it was pot they were handing me in a pipe, but it was crack cocaine. That was it. I was hooked.”
The Now-Leader caught up with Hall after interviewing her the first time in mid-October. On Halloween day, she was ecstatic to have been accepted into a treatment program at Phoenix Society, a recovery centre in North Surrey.
“It’s different, it’s peaceful,” she said on Oct. 31, after spending her first night there. “Sixty three days clean today.”
Looking to the future, Hall said she intends to become a youth worker, and looks forward to moving into second-stage housing.
Operators celebrate successes, hope permanent sites found soon
Hall’s story is just one of roughly 160 homeless people who were moved into the temporary modular units last June. Her story is not unique, according to Keir Macdonald, executive director of Lookout Housing and Health Society that runs the three modular sites.
“There are similar stories, reconnection with families,” he told the Now-Leader. “On Thanksgiving, we even had some family members coming into the modular for Thanksgiving meals. So there are good examples of getting healthy and getting well.”
A few people have moved into market housing, he said.“Ultimately, the projects only had a two- to three-year shelf life until the next phase of (permanent) buildings come online. We can’t wait for that to happen, and are looking for opportunities anytime people are ready to make that move.”
The project hasn’t been without its bumps along the way. Asked if people have been kicked out of the housing units, Macdonald said “three or four, that I’m aware of, since we opened, that have had to move on. That’s just behavioural based, or violence based.
“Even of those people we were still able to get them to shelters. They took a backwards step but we’re still working with them.”
Macdonald said there’s been “really good take up” in the overdose prevention rooms at the modular homes. He added that Safe Point, the safe injection site along 135A Street, is still being used regularly, seeing up to 150 to 200 people per day.
Looking to the future, Macdonald said it’s “unfortunate” there’s been a delay in identifying where the next phase of the project will be built, which will be 250 permanent units to replace the 160 in Whalley.
“The one proposed site in Cloverdale, of course, has been withdrawn,” he said, referring to a controversial proposal to build a 60-unit, four-storey supportive housing development in the business core of downtown Cloverdale that was met with significant community opposition.
Ultimately, BC Housing withdrew the application.
“It’s a concern,” Macdonald said of that delay. “One of our sites has 12 months to run on its lease.” He worried about timing, if a lease extension couldn’t be achieved.
“We know how long projects take to get built,” he added. “The clock is ticking.”
While Macdonald said the 160 temporary modular units are “a fantastic start,” he acknowledged it’s a far cry from what’s truly needed. The last 2017 Metro Vancouver Homeless count identified more than 600 people in Surrey without a home.
“We’re still turning people away everyday from the shelter,” he lamented.
Where are the homeless living, now that 135A Street is deemed a no-tent zone?
“We’re hearing from the city and bylaw staff that’s its become a transient population, everywhere from Bridgeview to Newton. People are getting moved on,” said Macdonald. “They’re in a bit of a shuffle right now, from location to location.”
Another challenge has been the closure of the Front Room Drop-In Centre, that was attached to the Gateway Shelter o
n 135A Street. It was shut down when the modular units opened. It’s closure has left “a bit of a gap” in services in the area, said Macdonald.
“We’ve definitely seen a congregation at King George now, and SUMS (Surrey Urban Mission Society at 108th Avenue and King George Boulevard), which is one of the resources there to help cater to some of the population. The Front Room was a 24-hour resource centre and when you don’t replace that, there will be a bit of a gap.”
“It was a tough transition,” said Macdonald of the Front Room’s closure. “Up until probably a month or two ago, people were still showing up. We’re hearing from staff that people were coming from correctional facilities, that’s the way they could access showers and things.” Macdonald said staff are tracking the turnaways.
How has the neighbourhood taken to the project?
“Not everyone loves it being there,” Macdonald acknowledged, “but from what I understand, everyone is working well to work together and fix issues.”
He noted there are monthly community advisory meetings to discuss, and find solutions for, any issues that arise. “It’s a mix of local residents, businesses, community organizations,” he said.
What do the local businesses have to say? It depends who you ask.
For three decades, Elfie Stumpf has worked at Whalley Optical near 107th Avenue along King George Boulevard. She says things are “way worse” in the area since the modular units opened. A defeated Stumpf described finding used needles in front of her business, human feces at the company’s entrance, and said she has seen people drinking alcohol and “shooting up” in front of other businesses along the corridor.
Stumpf said she once walked elderly customers to their vehicle because people she believed to be intoxicated were “harassing people” in front of the post office.
“I’m just tired,” Stumpf lamented, noting she emails Surrey RCMP and city hall daily. “I’m fighting it on my own right now.”
Stumpf, who was one of the founding members of the Downtown Surrey BIA, said the whole reason the organization started was because of the “same problems we’re having now.”
“It got better, but now it’s turned around and gotten back to where it used to be.” She said police seem like they’re “run pretty ragged.”
“When they were on 135A, they were all in one spot. Police could kind of keep an eye on them and monitor them. Now, they’re dispersed.”
Stumpf said some in the community think development will revitalize the area, but she’s not convinced. “That’s not happening, not the way it is now,” she said.
“We had some really good businesses that were in this area for 40 years that moved out because of the problems. We’re not going to get new businesses with things the way they are. It’s gotten to the point where I’m in my car and as soon as I get into Whalley I tense up.”
A short ways away from Whalley Optical, Mike Nielsen runs his business, Sprite Multimedia, at the corner of 108th Avenue and King George.
In his area, Nielsen said things have improved. He said Stumpf has it worse because she’s close to one of the “more challenging” modular sites. He said two of the buildings, at 10662 King George Blvd. and 13550 105th Ave., seem to have “the more difficult-to-house folks there.”
The one across from the Chuck Bailey rec centre (at 13455 107A Ave.), where Hall resided, is “exceptionally well managed,” he added.
“But where I am, it’s been the best year in the last five,” he told the Now-Leader. “It’s not perfect, but case incidents are way down, there’s less garbage, no one’s camping at the old Grosvenor Road site (behind Sprite Multimedia).”
Paul Chen, who runs his Centreline Auto Repair, looks out at 135A Street from the front window of his business, where a tent city was set up prior to the modular units opening.
Chen says things have improved since the housing project opened.
“The street is kept clean. Mostly it’s good,” said Chen. “We’re still seeing break-ins into the trucks, and there’s increased panhandling on the street. So it changed a tiny bit of things, especially from my viewpoint here.” But, he added, “we’re still suffering.”
While no possible locations for the 250 permanent units of housing have been publicly revealed, BC Housing’s regional director Brenda Prosken said the City of Surrey is “leading the charge in the search for sites.” She’s confident the province will “deliver the housing in short order.”
“We have demonstrated we can do it once, and I think we have a good chance of being able to repeat that kind of performance,” she added.
Prosken said with the temporary modular units, “we’ve really changed some of the landscape in Surrey now. They’re not always happy endings, when working in a social service. It takes some effort to really help people change themselves. When it happens, it’s a very fulfilling thing to see,” she added.
The Now-Leader asked Surrey’s Public Safety Director Terry Waterhouse for an update on sites being considered for the 250 permanent units.
“We are currently transitioning to the new mayor and council,” he wrote in an email. “Prior to commenting we will require
direction from mayor and council on this file.”