Jonquil Hallgate said she was up at 5 a.m. on a rainy Monday morning, listening to the intense downpour.
Weather is something she pays far more attention to than your average person, as co-ordinator of Extreme Weather Response programs in Surrey, White Rock and Delta.
“We’re gearing up to open,” Hallgate told the Now-Leader. “We’re opening up many of the locations we had last year, but we’re looking for a site in Newton if possible, because we don’t have anything right now.”
Civic space in Newton, she said, “isn’t on the table at the moment.”
Councillor Brenda Locke said the city should “absolutely” lend city facilities to the Extreme Weather Response (EWR) program.
“We must look for space in Newton and if we can’t find it, then it has to be civic space,” said Locke. “We didn’t have any (spaces) in Newton last year and it was problematic. It will be problematic again this year.”
Last year, 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.
This year, that’s off the table seeing as the facility is shutting down operations within a matter of months.
Now, there’s a push for the city to continue to offer civic space, but this year, in Newton.
“We were lucky last year, our winter was comparatively easy,” said Locke of last year’s season. “We had that little two week stretch, but for the most part we didn’t have a really bad winter. The way this fall is going I don’t know what to expect this year. But we’re not prepared.”
Locke is also worried about a shortfall in spaces for Whalley and Guildford.
“That whole Whalley Guildford area, the north area in general is a concern. Newton it going to be a concern. Just about all of our EWR beds last year, when we really needed them, were all utilized. We don’t have empty spaces.”
While the last regional homeless count identified 602 homeless people in Surrey, Locke said there’s “no question” there’s been an increase in recent years. And, the 602 was a 49 per cent increase from the previous 2014 count.
“We have tent villages in Surrey all over the place,” she said, noting the “Sanctuary” tent city just off of King George Boulevard near Bridgeview is just one.
“South Surrey, Fraser Heights, they’re all over the city and there’s lots, certainly, in all our big parks,” she said. “You get this kind of wet, if this stays for any length of time, and add to that the cold? It’s a bad situation.”
Newton BIA has conducted its own homeless counts in recent years, finding 52 people without housing in the town centre alone in 2018 (not including those at Hyland House).
But executive director Philip Aguirre said the BIA was not able to complete it this year.
He said Hallgate “has always been a huge supporter, but the city has never made it a priority.”
“The (BIA’s) Community Safety Patrol have experienced a higher level of files this summer. No available beds. No consultation on a new supportive housing site. No additional policing resources,” he said. “The community is feeling the effects and our resources are falling behind. Team members are getting burnt out.We complain about not receiving the equivalent amount of resources in Surrey compared to Vancouver but we do not have an annual homeless count. Without this data how can we successfully advocate for a higher level of service?”
Aguirre said “we must acknowledge that we have a growing problem in Surrey” and that “the average person or business owner is well aware that it is getting worse.”
Hallgate said there are roughly 140 extreme weather beds that can be called to open across Surrey, White Rock and Delta, if needed.
Nightshift Street Ministries in Whalley will once again open 15 beds specifically for women, and Pacific Community Resource Society will have 10 “youth” beds. In Cloverdale, Pacific Community Church has 30 spots available, and Star of the Sea Catholic Church in White Rock is offering 30 beds.
Phoenix Society has another 15 beds (five for women, 10 for men), Fraser Region Aboriginal Friendship Centre has another 12 beds and the Guildford shelter on 104th Avenue is making 15 spaces available for men only. In Delta, Ladner United Church has 15 beds available.
These are in addition to the 150-plus permanent shelter beds in Whalley that are typically full every night, and 160 units of temporary modular housing in Whalley.
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.