Frostbite, thefts, sleeping under snow experienced by Semiahmoo Peninsula’s homeless as shelters run over-capacity

Calls increase for long-term solutions for unsheltered community in South Surrey, White Rock

Icy weather brings a world of danger to people experiencing homelessness. In addition, the Semiahmoo Peninsula’s temporary supportive systems are due to close, but the need does not just end when the weather warms up, say advocates. (Contributed photo)
December 30, 2022

By Sobia Moman, Peace Arch News

Read the original artcile here.  

This is part three in a series on homelessness in South Surrey and White Rock.

Click here to read part one and part two  

White Rock’s daytime warming centre will close its doors on March 31, 2023 until next winter. Not long after, the local temporary overnight shelter will also close for the season in mid-April.

The pending closures are leading to calls from advocates and a local politician for a longterm solution to the homelessness crisis on the Semiahmoo Peninsula.

A volunteer at the temporary overnight shelter, Susan Wieczorek, hopes to see a full-time shelter built in the area, while Upkar Singh Tatlay of Engaged Communities Canada Society (ECCS) wants to see the people his organization helps gain access to permanent housing.

“I want to not have to do this. I wish we didn’t have a need for these services. Our goal should be not having a need for this at all,” said Tatlay, who runs the daytime warming centre in White Rock.

So far this season, the centre has been able to get one woman moved into supportive housing, which Tatlay described as a win, stressing this is the actual long-term solution, not a homeless shelter, which he said can be unsafe for some.

This point was also echoed by Surrey-South MLA Elenore Sturko who said many individuals have bad experiences staying in shelters, adding some are worried about thefts.

A ‘housing first’ model has shown promising results in a study conducted by Sarah Canham, adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University.

“The findings from that show that if we give people a stable place from which to function and manage and get themselves situated, while having the support they need to meet their own individual needs, that the ability for them to resolve their homelessness is significant.

“Get people into housing first without any pre-conditions or presumptions that they need to be abstinent from drugs or alcohol, or that they need to go see a mental health clinician before they get housing,” Canham told Peace Arch News.

Nonetheless, what is available now is nowhere near enough. That’s a point they all can agree on.

Running over capacity

The spell of cold weather prior to Christmas demonstrated the warming centre is seeing a higher need in the community than it is equipped to meet, Tatlay said.

“In terms of capacity, we were full – we were beyond full. All the chairs were taken but it was like, ‘You are freezing outside. It would be inhumane to make you stay outside right now when you’ve already been suffering. Let’s get you inside so you can at least stand’.

“So there was a whole section of people who were just standing.”

With a capacity of 30 individuals in the trailer, the number who found shelter inside was actually closer to 40 people, Tatlay told Peace Arch News. Supplies dwindled quickly, but day-of donations from the community kept them afloat.

The plan for the centre was to have nurses and counsellors tending to visitors once a week at the White Rock site. But because of various staffing difficulties Tatlay was informed about beforehand, he said, health care workers have not been at the centre since the first week of December.

“With no nurses, it’s really up to us now to deal with it,” he added, pointing to numerous individuals who get injured in the cold weather and others who come in with sopping wet clothing.

“We had people inside shivering for hours (because) the cold had reached their bones.”

With only one overnight shelter in the area, demand for the temporary space is far higher than the capacity allows.

Mount Olive Lutheran Church’s overnight shelter runs daily from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. and has mats for 25 to sleep on in the multi purpose room. The reality is, however, the number of people who show up is in the mid-40s, Wieczorek said.

“If there’s more than 25 that come in, they don’t get a mat but they can come in and get warm and there’s chairs… We’re often over-capacity which is a sad comment on society, that so many people need a place to stay.”

Wieczorek adds that because the shelter, overseen by Options Community Services, is temporary “it’s like a Band-Aid solution.”

Many people experiencing homelessness are still sleeping on the streets, Leanne Utendale — manager of Sources’ outreach team — observes during the group’s time spent going around the Peninsula with supplies for people they see on the streets.

“Mostly, it’s people trying different techniques to stay warm. So (they’re) making makeshift shelters out of cardboard on the streets or underground,” she said.

During days of below-freezing temperatures, the group will see individuals with frostbite and other physical injuries. This is also often the case with folks who frequent the daytime warming centre, Tatlay said.

“There’s easily over a dozen people with their hands all wrapped up… (frostbite) is really bad.”

Last winter, there was a man who “was sleeping in like a closet overnight, but his feet were outside so his feet were all frost-bitten” leading to his toes being amputated, said Mandave Dhadda, a staff member at the warming centre.

Another visitor of the daytime space, David, was sleeping outdoors on the night of Dec. 19 when the Semiahmoo Peninsula saw about 35 centimetres of snow fall overnight. Lying in a sleeping bag, David’s head was covered by trees but the lower half of his body was “completely covered in snow, inches high.”

“Freezing, terrible, numb,” is how David described his night.

Another man has been sleeping on concrete under steps leading up to a portable washroom, Tatlay said.

Some who sleep outside have had their belongings stolen, including one man who showed up at the centre on a rainy day with no shoes and told staff that he was “sleeping and someone just ripped them off my feet.”

While doing outreach, Utendale said that it feels great to give people supplies from donations they receive but oftentimes “when we see them again, they don’t have those same things. It can get lost, stolen and it’s hard for them to move around with a bunch of (items) because they don’t have a home to put it in.”

During the extreme weather, hand warmers and blankets are crucial for the unhoused, Utendale said.

“If you’re literally worried about shoes, a meal, not sleeping under some steps, how can you even begin to think about the next steps in life?” Tatlay wonders.

During the extreme weather, Fraser Health’s Integrated Homeless Action Response Team (IHART) were working throughout the region also.

“These teams form a regional network of multidisciplinary care providers to support the needs of people who are sheltered, unsheltered and living in encampments and select supportive housing environments,” said Nick Eagland, communications representative for the health authority.

“As an example of this dedication, the Burnaby IHART drove and hiked through ice and snow to reach several difficult-to-access encampments and ensure people could get the care they needed.”

‘2 steps forward, 20 back’

Once White Rock’s daytime warming centre and South Surrey’s overnight shelter close, cooling centres, including a tent with misting stations, which Tatlay’s organization runs, will likely return in the warmer months. ECCS’s summer space sees similar visitors as the winter centre does.

The time in-between, however, is unpredictable, Tatlay said.

“We have people on the last day when we close who say, ‘Hope you guys open up again soon. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me between then and now’ and they’re serious about that. The next time they’ll be inside is the next time we open up the doors again. They won’t go anywhere else.”

Reasons for this range from some individuals having been banned from shelters to others who do not feel safe staying in any shelter.

“What that does is it makes work harder because when we re-open, either in the summer or the winter, that’s a lot of medical stuff that’s been on the backlog for them. Nurses will be like, and they’ve said this already, ‘This is the problem.

“Because you guys close, that wound care we were doing, we’re back to the start, if not worse.’ So we’re trying to build that back up again,” Tatlay said.

A similar situation was seen at the warming centre last winter, Tatlay said.

While unhoused people in South Surrey and White Rock can get access to counsellors, nurses, food items and a designated space during the day in the summers, their nights are not as stable, as the overnight shelter only operates during colder months.

For this reason, Wieczorek wants to see a permanent shelter established in the area, but notes that government involvement is needed to support that initiative.

Dangerous waiting game

Sturko visits with and speaks to Tatlay often, she said, as a resource to learn more about the demographics of people experiencing homelessness in the area and to see exactly where the failures lie.

“There’s just a spectrum of issues and for (wintry) days, it can be deadly,” Sturko told PAN, pointing to individuals who work while living on the streets or in vehicles, many while dealing with serious mental health concerns, substance use issues, physical disabilities and more concerns that are not being addressed.

The newly elected BC Liberal MLA describes government action in addressing these issues as “putting a bucket under a drip and meanwhile, a tidal wave came. I think many communities and provinces find themselves with an overflowing problem (that is) under-resourced and that’s where we are today. Now, we need a solution that addresses a tsunami after it’s already happened.”

Meanwhile, White Rock mayor Megan Knight, who declined a request for an interview with Peace Arch News on the topic of homelessness in the city, sent a prepared statement.

“The City of White Rock appreciates the need for supportive housing, especially during extreme weather, which is why it has formed a partnership with Surrey to operate an emergency warming centre… until March 2023, and also operates cooling centres in the summer,” the statement reads.

“As the newly formed Council sets plans and priorities for the term, this is definitely a topic we will be discussing.”

The need to play catch-up to the issues in society today dates back to the 1980s, notes Canham.

“It really is a structural system-level issue wherein the federal government discontinued their investment in social and subsidized low-income housing and so we’re now dealing with the repercussions of not having enough housing that’s affordable for people,” she said.

More funding into BC Housing is crucial, Sturko believes.

In addition, mental health and addictions treatment are “severely under-funded in my opinion.”

“We need to ensure that when a person is ready, it’s there."

“A lot of times, that waiting period between when a person is ready to go and have the help and when it’s actually available, there’s so much time for a relapse or overdose (so) we need to close that hole,” Sturko said.