Life

No Rest for the Weary in Surrey, BC

Stories abound in insomniac Whalley, the city's toughest neighbourhood. Second in a series on homelessness.

By Ryan Fletcher 2 Aug 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Ryan Fletcher is a British/Canadian writer who recently graduated from UBC with a Master's degree in journalism. He currently lives and works in the UK.

[Editor's note: This is the second of reporter Ryan Fletcher's experiences living homeless in B.C. Find the first from Abbotsford, which includes an explanation of what inspired the series, here.]

Whalley is a tough, working class neighbourhood in Surrey. It's beat-up, grey and intimidating. Groups hang around on corners and there are lots of cash/credit shops. If you want crack or heroin, this is the place to get it. If you need food or shelter, Whalley is also the place to go.

It's around 5.30 p.m. at the Front Room, a community resource centre and shelter on 135a Street. The slight rain is getting heavier and the temperature is dropping. Outside there's a line up for the free evening meal. It's full of gaunt, drawn faces and shuffling feet. There are sirens in the distance. A girl screams and runs out of the line and down an alley.

While we're waiting for the doors to open, another woman, Kerry, pushes to the front of the queue, and begins a loud narration about how she's just got out of jail. Kerry is probably in her early thirties. She's big with short hair and skinny legs.

"They got me for that 8-ball I was selling in September," she tells the world at large. "My lawyer asked me, 'Were you selling dope by the church?' and I said everyone sells dope by the church. He told me I better not tell the court that or I'd be going away for a long time."

I spend the evening and night at the Front Room drop-in centre. It's open 24-hours for those who can't or won't sleep in the adjoining shelter. Most non-addicts head into the shelter before 11 p.m., but those with addictions are too focused on getting high to go to bed.

The lights are always on and two security attendants sit through the night in an office behind a plastic screen. Down one side of the room, which contains eight or 10 large tables, are windows to the street. You can't lie down on the floor, but you can rest your head on the table tops and doze. There's a large coffee machine and a plasma television in the corner.

Nearly every person I see has missing teeth and lots have black eyes. If a guy has a mustache it's yellow with nicotine. The conversation is rough and mocking, filled with bad language and comic, aggressive posturing. Everyone is on the look out for a spare cigarette, and because those with tobacco might be without tomorrow, there is a careful system of sharing.

In the middle of the night, the junkies come in for a respite from the mean streets. There's an atmosphere of delirium. It's foggy out and through the windows I can see suspicious apparitions move back and forth along the street.

At 2:00 a.m., two haggard women start injecting heroin right there in the Front Room. Their garbage bags are all around them. One of the women is standing slumped to the side with a needle in her hand. She has one eye open and is staring at the TV. We're watching Empire of the Sun. Her friend is hunting through a bag of makeup as if it might provide a solution for the ravages of drugs. Neither looks very different from the POWs in the film.

The big guy next to me, who has his hood pulled over his forehead so I can only see the bottom half of his face, is shouting at the TV.

"FUCKING CHINKS. FUCK YOU GODDAMN FUCKING CHINKS."

He's cheering on the young Jim during his tribulations in the Japanese internment camp. He's obviously enjoying the movie, and I'm reminded of cinemas in India, where audiences boo and hiss at the bad guys.

I mention that Jim is Christian Bale, who played the new Batman next to Heath Ledger.

"Heath Ledger. I fucking love that guy man." He begins to laugh like the Joker and pretends to fire a machine gun. "I'm Kurt. They call me an Indian but I'm a native."

The adverts come on.

"Fucking Hindus doing commercials. WHAT THE FUCK IS THE WORLD COMING TO? Never see an Indian doing a commercial. We're a minority in our own land. We're a lost people."

Kurt came to B.C. from Saskatchewan years ago "for a different life, the wrong life. Prosperity, huh, what a joke." He "used to do the drugs but now I hit the booze." Before drifting off into the night he tells me: "Behind every tree is a Cree."

Miracle of Whalley

Nightshift Ministries, a collection of local churches, runs a donated clothing depot and nightly soup kitchen for the area's destitute. The food is good and well received by the locals. Their website asks for other churches to come and join in the "miracle of Whalley."

Nightshift has bright lights which they erect in the parking lot off King George Highway, where the food is served. A 10-foot tall wooden cross is brought out and a microphone and speakers are set up. They will only play live Christian music. Most of it is pretty awful. More than once I heard people ask for a change but it was not an option.

Clean-cut volunteers stand with arms around their children, while the entertainment says things like: "We're going to sing a song now boasting about how great our God is" and "We should all be grateful for God's kindness." When it's dark out, the lights are too bright and illuminate only the space where food is served, making the rest of the parking lot and the nearby alley seem even darker, the people in them less human beings than moving shadows.

Unlike the team at the Front Room, who do an outstanding job whilst retaining their humility, the underlying message from Nightshift is that the people reduced to huddling in alleys are being punished.

"It's survival of the fittest out here," Kate, a Nightshift volunteer told me. "No, it's survival of the fiendish."

Meanwhile amid the preaching, a teenage girl down the adjoining alley is writhing and twisting in circles in the dirt. She is struggling and gasping like a rabbit in a snare.

"What's wrong with her?" a concerned volunteer asks.

"She's hurting," a voice from the darkened corner of the alley answers. "She needs her meds."

Afterwards, I head down the road to the nearby Victory Family Church. Recovering addicts are here to talk to their friends and acquaintances from the street about getting clean. They are accompanied by the Christian charity workers who help run their rehab program.

I introduce myself to Dan, a former crackhead, and ask him how to go about meeting people in this environment. In response, the baseball capped 22-year-old shows me the scars covering his body -- keepsakes from the multiple stab wounds he received on the streets.

"If you had asked me when I was out here," he says, "I would have taken you out. But you can ask."

Slangin'

It's 1:00 p.m. next day. "Hey Mama," Johnny says to the toothless middle-aged woman who has just got out of a car. She's wearing pajama bottoms and slippers. He then goes back to the conversation he's having about his friend's bull mastiff, which is straining on its leash.

We're sitting behind the Victory Family Church, where a flimsy wire fence separates us from the street. Mama pokes her fingers through the holes and tries to regain his attention.

"Wait," he tells her and then asks: "How much?"

He leans across and takes the 20 offered.

Disdainfully he tosses a baggie under the fence. She grabs it with eager hands and leaves.

Johnny is 37 with a flaming tattoo climbing from his shoulder onto his upper neck. His girlfriend is squirming in his lap and grasping a crack pipe. She's slim and pretty by virtue of her youth. She's wearing skin-tight tracksuit bottoms and blue eye shadow. Tinny hip hop is playing from a mobile phone. Next to us is a knocked over garbage can. Its contents are on the pavement.

"There are five gangs on this street and we all," Johnny pauses to find the right word, "...respect each other. The police are interested in making sure the public aren't involved in any violence. I've been in trouble before, you know with guns, and most of us down here just want to make money and live. Down here we all share the action."

A woman, holding the hand of a little girl, walks past. This annoys Johnny: "Good place to take your kid, lady."

There are two women on the street running for him and a young guy to the right of me is looking out. A steady stream of money changes hands between the addicts and the dealers. In the drug world, this sort of low level dealing is called slangin'.

The conversation goes from breeding dogs, to Johnny's recent four-month stretch, to his nephew's bad behaviour in the local crack shacks. Johnny then goes on to boast about how he took a guy's car and credit cards over drug debts. After an hour he says, "We've gotta go. I've got to go break (my girlfriend's) fucking dad's head tonight. Smash his skull."

Charlene's world

In the evening, I meet up with Charlene outside the grocery store on 105 A Avenue. We're away from the main road in the dreary little network of houses and businesses that make up Whalley. She's in her wheelchair wrapped in a sleeping bag. The rain is pattering on the awning that we're sitting under.

Charlene is 54 and says she has terminal cancer; last night she told me she had pneumonia. She looks like a very old woman, and whatever she has, she's definitely within the realm of the unwell. She's addicted to both heroin and crack.

Tina, who is 17, is with her. They're both hitting the pipe. Tina's complaining because she was caught up in an incident with the SWAT police earlier in the evening. The guy she was walking with was carrying a piece and the police had obviously got wind of it. I'd walked past the cordon on King George Highway half an hour earlier.

As she's talking, another girl, Jodie, who is a couple of years older than Tina, turns up.

"I'm not going to sleep tonight," Tina says.

"You shouldn't hang out with gangsters if you're not going to sleep from that," replies Jodie.

"I didn't know he was running. I tried to walk away from him and they told me to stop. I had to get on the floor with my hands behind my head. They said if I hadn't have stopped they would have shot me. They took my fucking pipe and it was full of caviar." Caviar is the smokable brown residue from burnt crack that's left in the pipe.

Jodie and Tina wander off and I stay to talk with Charlene.

"She's gonna get killed," Charlene says of Tina. "She plays guys, but just like the rest of us, she won't be pretty forever."

Charlene's monologue is an endless rambling pit of despair: "I hate it most at night time when it's cold. I get my lighter and light it inside my blanket but my feet are wet or cold. Now I have a room and it's ugly, cold and gloomy. The furniture is so old there's a radio in the TV. Do you know how fucking old that is? All I think of is my children. I wonder if we'll ever be together again... My dad would spit at me and tell me I was ugly. All I wanted was for him to say he loved me. He put me in a closet and threw bugs on me. He hung me by my feet over a well... Society has turned their back on me, and my family's turned their back on me, and this is where I fit in. I'd like to spend my money on my own children but I've failed. It's too late for me."

A car pulls up while Charlene is pulling the sleeping bag over her head so she can light her cigarette out of the wind. Jenny sticks her head out of the passenger window. She's a 41-year-old blonde who has quit sex work. She is living on an inheritance from her parents and hustling crack. Right now she's sporting a heel-shaped black eye. I'm cajoled into walking over and picking up Charlene's rock for her. Charlene's disabled after all.

The car leaves and comes back 15 minutes later. Jenny gets out to talk to us. Charlene asks her where she got the black eye and I'm expecting her to say from her boyfriend. Instead she says a cop gave it to her three days previously.

"I was in someone's shack when the cops kicked the door in," Jenny tells us. "They told us all to lay face down and then they started to beat the snot out of the kid who they thought had the drugs on him. When I put my head up to see what was going on a cop stamped on my face and kept his foot there. I'm 5-foot-1. That's uncalled for."

The conversation moves on to the victimization of women by men. Jenny, who is petite, amicable and pretty, was a prostitute in a massage palour before she got on crack. Once the owner found out about her addiction she was forced to ply her trade on the street, where she faced many dangers. "I got chocked from behind. I came to spread eagled. My tooth was knocked out, my nose was broken, and my pants had been ripped off."

Charlene sighs: "I don't understand why these men prey on us."

When Jenny left the massage parlour and came to Whalley she was shocked at what the girls on the street here allow. "You know, I wouldn't let clients do any of that weird shit like touch or eat my pussy or anything but these girls will. I couldn't believe how many girls do it for cheap. So I had a couple of them work for me and I charged double what they would."

Good old boy and a tough one

I find Jim sitting by a Filipino restaurant on 105 A. Avenue in the grey afternoon. He's eating fried rice out of a Styrofoam bowl. There are large globules of dried phlegm down the left leg of his pants. He has curly, red, shoulder-length hair, wears a fishing hat and carries a mickey of whiskey in the inside pocket of his puffer jacket. Looking down I realize with a shock that after five days of hanging round the streets I'm nearly as scruffy as he is.

A young crackhead comes past; she's following an older man down the dirt pathway which runs along the wasteland between the blocks. Jim shouts at her. She acknowledges him but carries on after the man.

"This is hooking central," 44-year-old Jim explains. "I had one give a me a blow job last night, eh? She was going woo woo woo and I was going woo woo woo. I don't know who she was. I was drunk."

We walk round the corner and he shows me the washing machine repair shop where he sometimes gets casual work. "I'm a good old boy and a tough one," he says, and he is. Over the next few hours I see him completely disregard the menaces of the crack dealers in the neighbourhood. He mocks them and they back off. "The dealers won't have anything to do with me cos I'm a nasty little shit."

When Jim tells me about the prostitutes he takes advantage of, he does it in a light sing song, saying things like: "I met this little girly and she gave me a hoot." His manner is so casual that at first I'm not sure what he's talking about. I think the fleeting five dollars of pleasure he receives from a desperate woman or girl lets him escape for a moment, and this is why he speaks about it so fondly.

He has "five kids, all have different mums, and 10 grandkids, all have different dads." I see Jim a number of times in the next few days and he constantly talks about having sex. There are moments when he speaks about his libido as if it's a separate entity.

Jim is like a lot of men I've met. Talk candidly to many soldiers and sailors, or even bouncers and builders, and you will hear similar stories and boasts. Jim's more honest, and his circumstances are exaggerated, but his opportunistic sexuality is not uncommon.

582px version of Neighbourhood of Whalley in Surrey, BC
Photo by Jenn Martin.

Some of Jim's anecdotes start unspeakably but end with relatively generous or good-natured acts: "I had her in my room for 10 days and spoon fed her while she came off the dope. Kept her locked in but she needed to pick up her welfare check and that was it, she was gone."

Later we're sitting on some shop steps waiting for the evening soup kitchen to open. It's raining and miserable. Jim is telling me about how when he was 14, he was airlifted from his orphanage on Vancouver Island over to the U.S. to help fight the forest fires that were raging that year.

I'm enjoying his story, and for a second the confines of the environment are forgotten. Then he gestures rudely at a woman down the nearby alley. She sticks her middle finger up at him. A couple of minutes later 24-year-old Dee appears in front of us. Her hoodie is up and her body language means trouble.

"Yo motherfucka you laughing at my friends?" She has no front teeth.

The way Jim reacts puts me on edge. All day he has been unfazed by the local dealers and addicts but now he's frightened.

"Are you disrespecting me?" she asks. "My brothers are over there and they'll fuck you up. You know I'm with Redd Alert." Redd Alert is a notoriously violent native street gang that was formed by convicts out of Edmonton. Maiming and murdering are their stock in trade.

At the bottom of the alley a silver Escalade is parked. Jim is trying his best to placate Dee.

"I'll do anything for you," he is saying.

I interject before it turns violent by introducing myself. She's still aggressive and I notice her irises are dancing crazily. It's disconcerting because they give her an inhuman look -- as if she's viewing the world from a primeval place in her mind.

She questions me thoroughly about what I'm doing.

"You think you can come round here and tell people how it is? That's half truth and half lies. Do you know you're on my land? Do you have the proper permission? You could get sued for $5 million for that."

I ask if we can be friends and offer my hand. Jim leaves and she calms down a bit and sits next to me. She talks about Prince William's fiancé Kate Middleton.

"They make her look better in the photographs," she says, pulling down her hood and sweeping her hair back from her forehead. "He likes sports. He needs a woman who can keep up with him."

Dee invites me to East Hastings where she sells so I can see "what really goes on." She came to Surrey from Edmonton to look after an aunt who later died of AIDS. "Everyone here is white," she says scornfully.

Dee has some business with Kerry, the girl who was telling everybody about her release from jail outside the Front Room. We go over to the main road where Kerry's sitting on the sidewalk against a closed shop. As Dee sits down a knife falls out of her pocket. She says I look like a cop because I'm writing in a small notebook, so I put it away.

There are two young girls with Kerry who are out of their minds on crack. Addicts call it tweaking. One is so gone she can't even speak and she retches periodically. The other is squatting and bouncing up and down on her haunches as she listens to her headphones. Kerry is in real pain from methadone withdrawal.

Four or five men encircle us, all looking to score crack from Kerry. After five minutes Dee leaves but I stay where I am. An east Indian guy is trying to swap a bag of food for crack.

"Did you get that from the church?" Kerry asks. "Don't lie to me."

The guy pauses and looks shifty: "No... I got it from the store."

"No, you got it from the church," she reiterates. "Okay, you can't sell a crackhead food from the church. You can do other stuff with it, but you can't do that."

Contradicting herself, she then haggles with him over whether the bag is worth a $3 toke or a $5 toke.

No rest

By now I've missed my own chance to eat. When I get back to the Front Room, I mention this to the people I'm sitting with. A native guy with long hair and a hearing aid offers me a sandwich.

"Thanks, man. That's really kind of you."

"I wouldn't have eaten it tonight anyway."

At 9:00 p.m. we wait outside for the adjoining shelter to open. At the appointed time we file in. Everybody puts their stuff inside the lockers, which are then locked up for the night. We have 10 minutes to get undressed and climb into our bunks. Meanwhile there's some quiet talk about bunk 23 between a couple of the men. Someone died in it.

It's like a boys' camp at first. Thirty-three men climb into metal bunk beds in various states of undress. There's giggling and farting. The lights go out and people go to sleep. Beside me a man has a bubbling cough. If it was much worse it would be a death rattle, but it's not loud enough to really disturb anyone. After an hour a monstrous snoring starts across the room. It carries on all night and keeps everyone awake. People begin to shout intermittently at the culprit as they drift in and out of sleep. At 4:00 a.m. I'm tired and I shout for him to stop snoring as well.

Early in the morning, the men are bad-tempered because of the snoring. An argument flares up. I lay in bed and listen.

"You mother fucka. All fucking night like a fog horn. Can't you keep it quiet? Jesus," someone says. One or two others join in and the insults snowball into threats.

The culprit replies angrily: "I can't fucking hear myself snore. Fuck you."

I turn over and see it's the man with the hearing aid who gave me the sandwich.

Tomorrow: Living homeless in the dynamic Downtown Eastside.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice

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