Social service workers and volunteers based in South Surrey/White Rock say there’s a misconception that people who use the emergency shelter or local food bank are hung up on substance abuse or struggle with mental health.
“And that’s not true,” said Jean Macdonald, who has volunteered for the First United Church extreme-weather shelter for the past several years. “Certainly, there’s no question that some of the people that come have mental-health issues, some of them have alcohol or drug issues. But not all of them. That’s really important, you cannot generalize.”
Macdonald noted there’s a number of working poor that resort to one of the thinly padded mattresses laid out on the church’s concrete floor on cold evenings.
“People tend to assume that if you have a job, you will be OK. That’s the answer to everything – ‘get a job.’ There are guys that are working – I imagine it’s minimum wage but still – they’re doing work and they still cannot afford a place to live,” she said.
Some guests, Macdonald agreed, are victims of circumstance.
“I think that’s probably fair,” she said. “There’s one fellow, he used to play for the Surrey Eagles. He told me he had an accident, I haven’t had a chance to ask much about it. He’s nice, clean-cut, charming.”
The shelter opens during cold nights or during extreme-weather events. Operating out of the church cafeteria, this season it has been open more consecutive nights – 40 – than ever before. In recent weeks, it reached or exceeded capacity several times.
Macdonald says she doesn’t know where the homeless people sleep when the shelter is closed.
“Some of them will get a motel or something, but they will burn through the money they have pretty quick. Certainly, people sleep outside, they find cubby-holes, loading docks, sheltered places around where they can get out of the wind and rain a bit. Certainly people camp in the bush.”
Dick Avison, who wouldn’t give his age but said he’s been retired for more than 20 years, has been a volunteer for the shelter since it first opened its doors in January 2008.
Avison said shelter volunteers are “very much aware” of the working poor using the shelter. The working poor identify themselves by requesting a wakeup call – “which is five in the morning. They’ll take their (belongings) and be out the door in the morning.”
“When I see (in the) White Rock/South Surrey community that there’s that many people who need support of a warm place to sleep on a cold winter’s night, I’m alarmed. No hesitation,” Avison said.
Jaye Murray, manager of Sources Food Bank, which serves people from the South Surrey/White Rock area, points to the rising cost-of-living as part of the problem.
Murray said more than 1,600 people are registered, and the food bank is servicing 625 to 650 people a week.
Food is the last expense that the working poor prioritize, she added.
“They have to pay their rent, they have to pay their bills to prevent them from being evicted.”
The age gap of food bank clients ranges from seniors to people under the age of 19.
The working poor account for approximately 20 per cent of food-bank users, a category that’s growing more rapidly than all others. Nearly eight per cent have no income, and the remaining are on some type of government assistance.
Seniors make up for approximately 12 per cent of total users.
Murray said she wouldn’t classify drugs and alcohol abuse as a significant portion of the client base, but “I’m not saying it’s not here.”
The food bank has been supporting those in the South Surrey/White Rock area for approximately 35 years – “and there are still people that don’t even know there’s a food bank. I’m surprised, I still hear that all the time,” Murray said.
A subject that’s commonly brought up at the monthly Peninsula Homeless to Housing task force meetings is the number of people who are one unexpected expense away from being on the streets.
“We’ve had people who have owned businesses in the area. They were donors of ours for years and then they’ve run on hard times and the next thing they’re clients of ours. It’s not unheard of.”
Former First United minister Joan McMurtry, who has been working to end homelessness on the Peninsula for several years, is calling on all levels of government to do more about the ongoing issue.
McMurty said she recalls when food banks were first starting to pop-up in Metro Vancouver.
“We had a huge debate about them – those who work in antipoverty organizations – as to whether we should support them because we felt it was the way the government was fluffing off their responsibilities; passing the buck onto the community,” she said.
McMurtry says volunteers are doing their part.
“Volunteers need to step up to that next level and begin talking to municipal, provincial, and federal governments about what are they doing? For the most part, they rely on what we do, which was never the intent of food banks or meal programs.”
The B.C. government and city recently announced the completion of building renovations for the new Guildford shelter, which opened Feb. 14. The two-storey building features a commercial kitchen, dining area and six rooms designed for couples.
With the addition of the Guildford shelter (14717 104 Ave.), there are 230 shelter spaces open every night in Surrey.