This is part two in a series on homelessness in the Semiahmoo Peninsula
Click here to read part one that looks at an overview of homelessness in South Surrey and White Rock
Judgmental eyes bore into Marcel’s back one morning at the White Rock promenade, when all he wanted was a complimentary coffee – something several others had helped themself to without issue.
It was clear he did not belong.
At least, that’s how it felt for Marcel – a resident who has been living on the Semiahmoo Peninsula for years and recently lost his home.
“I get this look from the crowd … I was labeled,” said Marcel, who requested that only his first name be used.
He felt ostracized in a place where just months prior he could have easily blended into the crowd – a community where he has held many friendships, where he raised his children and worked.
This is why for him – and for other unhoused people he knows – having a shelter to reside in is not the top priority.
Marcel lost his own home after experiencing one devastating loss after another.
“COVID hit, my father committed suicide and then I lost my licence to drive, and that was my ticket for my income because I was a contractor. It all just unraveled so quickly,” he said.
“Losing my father was very traumatic for me and I could have handled any one of those things separately, but it all happened like bang, bang, bang.”
The cost and energy it takes to live in society did not allow Marcel to take a breather and re-set, he said, and so, he lost “everything.”
Eventually, Marcel filed for bankruptcy and took to the streets of White Rock. At first, it was terrifying, he said, but after getting help from other unhoused people around the area he has become more comfortable.
Rochele Strano, peer co-ordinator for Sources outreach team, which helps unhoused people around the area, was herself homeless for 10 years while living in Nanaimo, before moving to the Semiahmoo Peninsula two years ago.
“Half of the people cross the street to avoid you, the other half won’t look you in the eye and the ones that do (scoff) or pretend you’re not even there,” Strano told Peace Arch News.
A little kindness can go a long way, she noted.
“Someone might be on their way to kill themselves and if you said ‘good morning’ and smiled, that might change their whole outlook.”
Homeless shelter just first hurdle
Having a homeless shelter is only one — some advocates say the simplest — part of tackling homelessness.
Upkar Tatlay, founder of Engaged Community of Canada Society (ECCS), goes so far as to say that being accepted in one’s community is even more important than having a shelter.
“I’d draw attention to (the fact) that there’s still this pervasive ignorance in the community that exists around homelessness,” he said.
“Once we all have a common understanding, that’s when transformative change can occur. Once we’re all operating from the same playbook and we can all deliver solutions and responses, that’s when we’re going to see true, true change.”
Many people the outreach team members see have had an experience similar to Marcel’s, others lost work due to injuries and developed a reliance on pain medication, some are still reeling from childhood trauma, others have no personal support system and do not have the means to make it on their own, Strano said.
Everyone is different, she reiterates.
“The majority of homeless who don’t do drugs when they become homeless, within a year they do. Because it’s just a way to cope,” she said.
Access to mental health resources, harm-reduction gear, safe-consumption sites and enough food to eat would make a world of a difference, advocates say.
“Some people would never live in a house again or sleep in a bed … it becomes a way of life,” Strano said, pointing to a woman she knows in White Rock who lives out of her vehicle quite proficiently and is happily doing so.
PH2H and their chair Rick Bayer provide an extreme-weather shelter at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church in partnership with Options Community Services, but are advocating for a permanent shelter on the Semiahmoo Peninsula.
Still, Bayer recognizes that “wrap-around supports are essential along with providing a roof over one’s head.”
Basic necessities not met
People living on the streets rarely get access to a washroom, members of the outreach team stress.
Marcel once went to a fast-food chain and asked to use the restroom and was told it was out of order and to try a different business down the street. He went there and was told the same thing once again, and again at the next one.
“I thought, ‘How are all of these bathrooms out of order?’”
This leads many people to use bushes or side streets as a washroom, a practise which is often reported to police or by-law.
“Where else are they supposed to go?” Strano asks, while acknowledging that some people have misused business washrooms and that is likely the reason for not allowing unhoused people access to them.
But, a few people on one end of the spectrum should not represent everybody, she notes or, even better, public restrooms need to be more available instead.
Stigma holds people back
People hold onto stereotypes rather than take the time to learn and engage in conversations with those different from themselves, said Tatlay. This only prevents progress, he believes.
There are times when he reaches out to other organizations in an effort to collaborate, but the conversations often take a turn.
“There’s organizations that say, ‘I don’t want to be involved in homelessness, it’s not that big of a problem.’
“It’s an other-ing of the problem,” Tatlay explains.
“On the Peninsula, it’s often viewed as a benign problem, or it’s minuscule or perhaps intermittent. It’s easy to just push the responsibility and say ‘We don’t touch that issue’ or ‘we don’t address homelessness, that’s not part of our mandate, it’s not in our scope.’”
Meanwhile, some residents see the growing number of people living on the streets of White Rock and South Surrey as a direct result of the services that are being provided here to help them, even though many advocates say that there is nowhere near enough supportive systems.
“When folks wonder why there seem to be increasing numbers of ‘unhoused’ people perhaps one factor is the increasing success society is having at keeping them warm and well fed. Of course sometimes bad luck is involved,” one South Surrey resident wrote to PAN.
“I haven’t seen a skinny homeless person for years. I see them relaxing on the grounds of the local parks with their overflowing shopping carts parked close by, but they are clearly not starving.”
Others wrote into PAN with similar sentiments.
For Marcel, it’s not difficult to understand why some people judge him. He was one of them not that long ago.
“I wouldn’t have even given myself the time of day,” he explained.
However, education and understanding are still needed as people will always live on the streets, Strano believes.
“It would be unfortunate if the rising sentiment became one of simply hoping to move people along or lock them up, since abandonment, rejection and derision is most often what set people on these trajectories in the first place and it is the opposite response that is needed to support a new trajectory,” said George Passmore, director of personal and family counselling and support at Sources.
Passmore’s concern for the homeless population is supported by his experience in serving “many people who have histories of significant trauma and social marginalization and having witnessed many people flourish when they are offered relationships that are genuinely compassionate and they have opportunities to belong and contribute meaningfully.”
One incident that has stuck with Priscilla Dutt, a member of the Sources peer outreach team, happened when she was living in a tent. Somebody who lived in a nearby building started throwing their cat’s feces at her because they did not want her living near them.
“All day, every day, all you have is people walking by you, looking down on you, thinking the worst of you. Whether or not you’re the worst, it doesn’t matter… If you took all that in, you’d be destroyed.”
Having a homeless shelter to reside in does not solve all concerns, such as mental illness, substance use and trauma, Strano said, and so, having a shelter is only scratching the surface.
Click here to read part three