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Erin Harron

Surrey grad rethinks views on homeless

July 26, 2007

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By Terry Lavender

When Erin Harron (above) wrote her thesis last year she hit the streets of downtown Surrey, not the library or the Internet, to do her research. Harron, who recently graduated from SFU’s Master of Public Policy program, was addressing homelessness in Whalley, in north Surrey. So she went right to the source, the homeless themselves.

Harron was working for the Whalley Business Improvement Association (BIA) as a student intern at the time. She interviewed 20 current and former homeless people along with government, social service and business representatives.

Whalley is a community of contrasts. It’s home to modest single-family homes, modern condominiums and gleaming office towers. SFU’s Surrey campus is here, part of the architecturally acclaimed Central City. Whalley boasts a world-champion Little League baseball team and the B.C. Lions football practice field. But it also suffers from a reputation for petty crime and a large — and growing — homeless population.

Harron’s experience changed her views on the homeless. "I don’t look at a homeless person the same way any more. Before, I felt sorry for them; but now I feel respect for them and for who they are. I’m impressed by their strength."

She discovered there’s a stigma attached to homelessness. "Homeless people, especially women, are aware that people look down on them. They just need help to find a place to live." As one of her respondents told her, "It’s kind of hard to get a place (or a job) when you can’t get up and have a shower and stay dry all day and look presentable."

In her report, Harron makes four recommendations: low-barrier supportive housing, increased funding for social services, non-profit housing management, and pushing senior levels of government for new affordable housing.

BIA executive director Leslie Tannen says the recommendations, "make sense and should be endorsed by any prudent or reasonable person." Tannen says she was impressed with Harron’s work and has hired three SFU students this summer.

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