From mental illness to substance addiction, toxic drug supply, disease outbreaks and weather that ranges from one extreme to the other, unhoused populations across B.C. – and around the world – are fighting a constant battle, without a home to turn to for an escape.
With the Semiahmoo Peninsula seeing a rising number of unhoused people, advocates who work in the area are pleading for more resources and a permanent, 24/7 shelter, especially with winter just around the corner.
The number of people experiencing homelessness on the Semiahmoo Peninsula is undoubtedly increasing, but the resources available to them are sporadic, at best, and inadequate to serve the vulnerable population, area advocates agree.
“I’ve been here since at least ’98 and I’ve never seen it as bad as it is now,” said Jaye Murray, program manager at Sources Food Bank for South Surrey and Langley locations.
Sources Foundation offers a range of support services to homeless populations, with its local food bank feeding more unhoused people now than ever before.
“We gave out 250 bags to homeless in the second quarter (July to September), which is unheard of,” Murray said.
To put that into perspective, between 2008 and 2009, the food bank served 109 people who were homeless in the area and in 2019, the food bank gave out 134 bags for the entire year. The bags that Sources gives out contain ready-made food items intended to last two days.
“It’s hard because it’s across the province. There needs to be some sort of provincial, if not national, plan in place to help everybody,” Murray told Peace Arch News.
“We’re feeding people, but that’s all we’re doing. It’s sort of like being on a hamster wheel. Nothing is changing.
“Something has to change.”
Working under the mandate “whatever we have, we give,” Sources has not strayed from its path, but is facing difficulties because what they have is not enough. Donations to the food bank are dwindling, as well.
“The first thing anyone asks for is food,” said Rochele Strano, who is the peer co-ordinator for a team of people from Sources who reach out to unhoused folks in the area and support them.
Strano and her team also work at the Peace Point Overdose Prevention Site.
Another organization in the area supports homeless people during extreme weather conditions at a pop-up shelter.
“We kind of weld the patches when a pipeline bursts,” said Upkar Singh Tatlay – founder and executive director of Engaged Communities Canada Society – describing the emergency services the organization provides.
“It’s hard for somebody to take steps towards recovery, take steps towards treatment, take steps towards counselling when literally their life is threatened due to the weather,” Tatlay said.
Last winter’s cold-weather shelter served as a warm place to come in out of the cold, in addition to the emergency care provided – injuries, counselling, weather-related concerns such as wet or inappropriate clothing for the weather, etc. One of the issues with this shelter was the constant opening and closing that took place because of varying temperatures.
“That’s the hard part because they have the workers there and then they get them going and get them some support and then, the shelter closes,” Murray explained.
“And then, two or three days later, it opens again and you’re kind of starting from scratch. So the big thing was, have it open all the time so if you’re working with someone, you keep it going rather than stop and start.”
Change is taking shape
Led by manager Leanne Utendale, the outreach team at Sources has begun running a new men’s centre out of Sources’ South Surrey location. This centre fills the role that has been missing in the area for men who need access to warm meals, showers and a place to wash their clothes. It’s been open every other Saturday since Sept. 10.
For women, there are resources available, but the demand is only increasing.
Sources Women’s Place in South Surrey has been seeing a huge rise in women seeking its support, with the centre announcing Monday, Oct. 24 that they are at capacity and resources are being stretched thin.
Creating a hub for unhoused people to gather in a safe space with a roof over their head and access to a bed, a kitchen, washing machines, harm-reduction gear and more is one of Strano’s goals.
The time is now
White Rock and South Surrey are in the perfect situation to change the trajectory of people’s lives before it’s too late, Tatlay said, because the population of unhoused people on the peninsula is still low in comparison to other areas.
“We’re in a place that many places in North America, like Seattle, Vancouver, San Francisco, L.A., wish they could go back to and do things differently,” he said.
“We can easily fumble this opportunity like they did and in 10 years we, too, will be sitting back and going, ‘Oh man, I wish we could go back and do it better.’”
Frustration is felt among most support workers, as the government role around helping homeless and low-income people has not gone far beyond conversations, Murray said.
“They say the right things, but… We’re doing more education, we’re doing more outreach, but we don’t have a low-income housing project going on.”
Tatlay and Strano stressed that all elected officials, both new and established, need to be on board in order for change to occur.
Although many people will attend meetings and awareness events, what is done afterwards is what actually counts, Strano said.
“Everyone talks and no one does anything … I’ve been to so many conferences and they’re great, we come up with so many ideas but there’s no follow-through.”