(File photo: Amy Reid)

(File photo: Amy Reid)

‘I really am begging’: Extreme weather shelter co-ordinator asks Surrey for help

Zero extreme weather beds available; McCallum says ‘we understand the problem and we’re working on it’

As of Friday morning, not a single bed was available in Surrey under the provincial Extreme Weather Response (EWR) program that houses homeless when weather conditions become dire.

This, despite the program officially kicking off on Nov. 1.

It’s “distressing” to have zero such beds open in the city as of yet, said Jonquil Hallgate, co-ordinator of Surrey’s EWR operations.

It’s the only year in her memory that this has happened, and she’s taken to begging Surrey City Council to help find locations as the weather worsens.

“We’re now at cold weather,” Hallgate said as she spoke to city council as a delegation Monday (Nov. 9).

“Tonight we’re expecting snow and it’s forecast to be pretty cold through the weekend. We have zero (extreme weather) spaces in Surrey to house folks who are homeless today. A few years ago we had a total of 200 (extreme weather beds available), then it went to 180, then 150, last year we had 86 and today we have 24, but they’re not ready to open yet” for a variety of reasons, she explained.

READ ALSO: Homeless people in Surrey face ‘shocking and scary’ scenario this winter, Oct. 19, 2020

Hallgate proceeded to plead for council’s 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,” she said Monday night. “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. People in faith communities are saying, ‘We’re not able to worship or host activities we once were able to do for our own congregations, so why would we open for extreme weather?’”

“That’s a big of a problem,” she continued, “so I’m hoping perhaps we might be able to have a conversation separate and apart from this about what spaces there might be in the city, or who the city knows who might be able to accommodate us in the town centres…. I really am begging for you guys to see if you can help us mobilize a few spaces that we can open very quickly.”

Hallgate had spoken to city council as a delegation, and while there was no official response from council at that time, Councillor Steven Pettigrew spoke.

“Just had a question, maybe for yourself or on behalf of council, on the first request, these people out there on the streets tonight, is there something you can do that’s within your power and authority to be able to open up some places?” Pettigrew asked Mayor Doug McCallum. “I am just wondering if you had any ideas of how we could get a few more of these people off the street and give them somewhere warm tonight? I don’t have any suggestions, but hopefully something comes to mind for you that we could implement tonight or tomorrow.”

McCallum replied that he has written a letter on behalf of council in regard to the matter.

“I think they’re working on them, the province does have a co-ordinator that works towards looking and finding, and has the responsibility to find some places for them. We’re working on it as we speak today,” said the mayor. “We understand the problem and we’re working on it as we speak.”

As heavy rain fell Friday morning, Hallgate told the Now-Leader that the situation remained the same and no spaces were available to open for the weekend ahead.

READ ALSO: ‘Not wanting to turn anyone away’: Surrey’s extreme weather shelters close to capacity, Jan. 16, 2020

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 due to a cold snap.

In 2018, for the first time, the City of Surrey allowed extreme weather shelter beds to open in civic space. The city permitted operators to use the North Surrey rec centre, allowing 30 extreme weather beds to be set up inside.

But in 2019, that was off the table due to the facility’s closure.

The EWR program is a provincially funded initiative that officially runs from Nov. 1 to March 31. 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.

In Surrey, the beds are called to open if temperatures are at or below 0 degrees Celsius, if there if significant snow or rain, or significant windstorms that “may present danger to persons living in wooded areas and/or makeshift shelters.” Wind, rain and snow weather alerts can also launch an opening.

-Files from Lauren Collins