Complaints shut down homeless shelter

Volunteers say closure leaves South Surrey without a shelter

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By Laisa Conde

South Surrey’s only extreme weather homeless shelter was shut down at Kwomais Point Park March 23 after complaints and threats towards the project, volunteers and its guests.

Mount Olive Lutheran Church and Options Community Service, a non-profit charity that provides social services in Surrey, operated the shelter.

The extreme weather centre had relocated in late February from the church’s facilities to the park to deal with overcapacity and for greater safety.

Brian Anderson, a member of the Mount Olive Lutheran and volunteer with the shelter, said organizers were caught by surprise after receiving a notice from the City of Surrey saying they wouldn’t be able to operate at the Kwomais Point Park’s facilities. Those facilities include a small kitchen, bathroom and a large room for the guests’ beds.

“On the day that the shelter was supposed to reopen when another [weather] alert had been called … the staff were all set up and ready to go,” he said. “Nobody knew what was happening until they got this call late in the afternoon saying nope, the facility is not available, you can’t use it.”

Anderson said they later found out that a small number of residents around the park had sent complaints and threats to the City of Surrey about the shelter.

“One woman was quoted as saying, ‘we don’t want that type of stuff in our neighborhood, send them back to Whalley where they belong’,” he said. “They were saying that their property values were decreased immediately.”

He said volunteers who earlier canvassed the neighbourhood to inform them of the operation in the park reported threats made against the potential guests. “They said that they weren’t going to put up with it. And if they saw any of these people around, something might happen to them,” Anderson said.

During the time the shelter operated at Kwomais Point Park, there had been no problem incidents reported to the security staff hired by the church, according to Anderson. Cpl. Vanessa Munn, media relations officer for the Surrey RCMP, said she “was not aware of any incidents” involving people using the shelter.

Anderson said the City of Surrey could have handled the situation better.

“The way the city capitulated to that group without even checking to see whether or not what they were saying was accurate. And it wasn’t accurate at all, but they just gave it to them,” he said.

The City of Surrey was inquired on the reasons behind the shelter’s closure, but only said that for the remaining extreme weather response season, “the City is supporting a plan to provide spaces and transport people to existing shelters that have capacity.

A shelter surrounded by obstacles

Challenges and controversies have been part of the shelter since it began operation in 2021. For two years, the shelter hosted by Mount Olive Lutheran Church operated as an extreme weather response, which meant it would only operate when Homelessness Service Association of BC sent out an alert.

Anderson said that the inconsistency of the shelter during that period created difficulties for staff and guests.

“[The inconsistency] made it difficult for the guests that came to the shelter to know whether or not the shelter was open,” he said. “It made it very difficult for the volunteers, for example, who brought the food to go to the various sources … because they weren’t doing it on a consistent basis.”

These obstacles made the church come together with Options Community Services to consider requesting a permit for a temporary shelter to the City of Surrey.

According to the minutes of the council meeting held on Jan. 16, more than 500 people expressed opposition and concerns about approval of the new permit.

On social media, South Surrey residents continued to express their opinions on the shelter. Marsha Oliver, a resident who lives near the church, talked about an incident she said happened during the operation of past shelters hosted by Mount Olive Lutheran Church.

“Once the church opened, we had not only eight attempted break ins, but one person almost burned our building down by lighting the cardboard bin under our gas line,” she said. “Three fire trucks later we were very lucky.”

Despite the opposition, Surrey’s city council approved the permit with only Coun. Gordon Hepner opposed. Hepner did not respond to multiple inquiries from the Voice.

Coun. Linda Annis said that shelters like the one offered by Mouth Olive Lutheran church are an important opportunity for homeless people to get the help they need.

“While sometimes it’s uncomfortable for neighbourhoods, it’s better for all concerned that these folks aren’t living on the street,” Annis said in an interview prior the city permit being revoked. “They do have a place to call home, even if it’s only temporarily.”

The need for a shelter in South Surrey

The shelter’s move from the church to the park came after the church started receiving more than the maximum 25 guests it could accommodate.

“We were overcapacity simply because there is a significant homeless population in the South Surrey and White Rock area,” Anderson said.

As the church and volunteers were dealing with the challenges of the popularity of their shelter, a fire incident within the church’s perimeter made them rethink their logistics in order to protect their neighbours, their guests and their own property.

“On one night, there were some people who had left the shelter and gone next door, and in the parking lot had started with a bit of a bonfire,” Anderson said. “It was unfortunate that the decision [to relocate] was made … but we had to respond to that we simply couldn’t allow things like that to happen. It was too dangerous.”

After the change of locations on Feb. 27, the homeless shelter hosted by the church reverted to an extreme weather response centre, which meant it wasn’t open every night and it resulted in fewer guests utilizing their services.

Anderson also added that the relocation resolved a number of issues, such as overcapacity, staff management and incidents.

He said that even though the situation is unfortunate and frustrating, it gives them an opportunity to keep advocating for a much-needed permanent shelter at South Surrey.

“This just proves that having temporary facilities doesn’t work because people get upset and bad decisions get made as a result of that. So, they [City of Surrey] have to find a permanent location that is best [to host a shelter],” Anderson said.

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