[Editor’s note: This story includes details of physical and sexual assault. It may be triggering to some readers.]
Wanda Stopa and Allison Colligan first met over 20 years ago, when Ali was recovering from a brutal stabbing and Wanda was living in what she describes as a crack house.
Both had experienced homelessness off and on for years, until Stopa was able to rent a basement suite in a suburban Surrey neighbourhood last year and Colligan got a spot in supportive housing.
But Colligan says she no longer feels safe at Little’s Too, a building operated by Atira Women’s Resource Society, which promised “24-7 support for women experiencing, or at risk of experiencing, homelessness.”
It was to Stopa’s backyard that Colligan retreated to deal with the trauma of two alleged assaults — a sexual assault that happened on Dec. 25 and another assault when she was no longer living at Little’s Too that left Colligan covered in bruises in March.
When The Tyee visited the two women in early July, Colligan was regularly sleeping in a corner of Stopa’s backyard — one of the few places she said she feels safe.
But just a few weeks after that visit, the two women were again thrown into homelessness: Stopa ended up getting evicted. Then, a fire that started in the carpark behind the backyard destroyed many of Colligan’s belongings.
Lori Damon, an advocate who works with women who are involved with the child welfare system, says she’s concerned about how the Christmas sexual assault was dealt with by staff at Little’s Too, and by the deterioration she’s seen in Colligan’s well-being since she moved into the building in August 2022.
Damon, a mental health clinician who previously worked with the Ministry of Children and Family Development, says she was enjoying Christmas dinner with her family when she started getting panicked calls and texts from Colligan, who she has known for four years.
Retreating to her bedroom to answer her phone, Damon says Colligan was screaming and crying and told her she’d been sexually assaulted “in the front and the back.” In the background, Damon says she could hear staff at the supportive housing building telling Colligan they were going to call the police.
“Because she was being obstructive and she wasn't helping — but they weren't listening to what she was saying,” said Damon, who records all her interactions with Colligan in a diary. “She didn't want to talk to them anymore, because she was violated. And they couldn't understand that she had been sexually assaulted.”
Damon said the interaction she heard over the phone was intense and chaotic: Colligan was yelling at Little’s Too staff and calling them names. The staff were yelling at Colligan and telling her to calm down.
Damon recalls thinking, “She can't calm down. She's just been assaulted.”
Over the phone, Damon said she then heard the police arrive. “They talked to her, and they told her she had to leave the building because the staff were afraid of her.”
Colligan says she doesn’t remember anything about the assault, including whether or not it happened inside the Little’s Too building or elsewhere.
After being told to leave the building, Colligan said she walked and walked around Surrey. On Dec. 27, she returned to Little’s Too and staff again called the police. This time, Damon says Colligan called her from the police station, where she was being released. Colligan says she also has no memory of being taken anywhere by police.
“My body knows but I don’t know,” Colligan said of her memory loss, which Damon said could be a response to trauma. “I remember talking to Lori — I came back hurt.”
Atira Women’s Resource Society say staff are not aware of the Dec. 25 incident and would not be able to speak about any such incident because of privacy issues. AWRS says violence against women is not tolerated and their policy is to notify police immediately “in the event of an act of violence or intimidation against a woman living in our building or a guest” and that any tenant “who assaults, sexually assaults, threatens or intimidates a woman living in our building or a guest will be issued an eviction notice.” Guests who are violent towards residents or workers are barred.
The Surrey RCMP say they do not release any information about sexual assaults or instances of police interactions that do not result in criminal charges.
Colligan’s relationship with staff at the building had been rocky in the days leading up to the Dec. 25 assault: on Christmas Eve, she said she was decorating in the building when she got into an argument with another resident. Staff also called police on that occasion, Colligan said.
“The constant thing they tell me is ‘Ali, go to your room,’ which triggers me that I’m going to get raped,” she said.
Karen Mills runs Peer2Peer Indigenous Society in Victoria and works with clients to get them into housing. She said it’s common for residents of supportive housing to be temporarily banned from buildings, often for a period of several days.
Mills says she has concerns about the safety of people who are banned and end up homeless.
“They're not allowed back in their room to collect anything. It’s just, ‘you got a 72-hour ban,’ and that's it,” Mills said.
“Which I have an issue with, because the purpose of supportive housing is to house homeless people. So when you give them a ban, you're putting them back on the street to become vulnerable again.”
Atira says it does not have any policies or practices that temporarily ban residents from buildings, but “in some cases, residents may request or be offered respite if they need a break from their current housing.”
Mills said women, and especially Indigenous women, are put at risk of violence or sexual assault when they’re banned from their supportive housing and end up on the street. On one occasion, Mills said, she witnessed a woman being banned when she was only wearing shorts and a bikini top.
“I thought to myself, this is unreal. Where does this person go for 72 hours?”
Mills said there are inevitably personality clashes when large numbers of previously homeless people are being housed together and support services aren’t adequate or haven’t been tailored to what residents actually need to remain housed.
“I feel that the proper supports are not integrated into the housing,” Mills said.
“When you hire somebody that doesn't have the credentials as a certified mental health worker or anything in that background, it's hard to de-escalate.”
The BC Non-Profit Housing Association, which represents non-profit housing providers, including those who run supportive housing, declined to comment on the practice of temporary bans.
The challenge of moving on from homelessness
Stopa is part of a community of homeless people in Surrey. Over the years, she’s been involved in creating several tent cities that have since been shut down by the municipality, as well as an unofficial warming centre that shuttered in 2022.
Stopa and Colligan described how hard it is to transition from homelessness into housing. After seven years of homelessness, Stopa finally found rental housing — but still slept outside for months until she was able to start living indoors.
Supportive housing is a type of housing that usually includes on-site staffing and is supposed to offer supports to help formerly homeless people stay housed. A typical supportive housing building might have one or two staff on duty at a front desk, with tenant support workers meeting with residents from time to time. Some buildings have health-care facilities on site, and many offer meal programs.
But moving tent city residents into supportive housing isn’t always the simple solution governments make it out to be, and some housing advocates say the supports offered are often not designed for individual tenants’ needs and are failing to actually keep vulnerable people housed.
Recent data released by BC Housing showed that 813 supportive housing tenants have been evicted in the past three years, with 285 of those people ending up back on the street. For 525 of the evicted tenants, BC Housing had no information about where they’d ended up.
Bernie Pauly, a professor of nursing at the University of Victoria who has researched homelessness, said there is no set definition of supportive housing, meaning programming varies widely from building to building and depending on who the operator is. Pauly questions whether people being moved from homeless encampments into supportive housing are actually getting the supports they need to remain housed.
“It varies so widely,” Pauly said. “I'm not saying there aren’t supports, but are there the particular supports that someone might need around, ‘this is how you keep a clean place’ or ‘this is how you talk to people.’”
After a tent city that formed on the Surrey Strip along 135A Street was removed in 2018, Stopa moved to a wooded area near King George Boulevard and 112th Avenue. She and other residents named the new tent city Sanctuary. One night, Stopa found Colligan sleeping on the Strip.
“She was really lost. I don't like to see my family or my friends like that,” Stopa said. “She had nowhere to go to. She was sleeping on cardboard with no blankets or nothing.”
Stopa brought Colligan to Sanctuary and set her up with a tent. Colligan says that at this period in her life, she was dealing with trauma. Living beside her friend at Sanctuary, Colligan says she began to improve.
In November 2019, the Sanctuary tent city was also removed, with residents offered spots in a newly opened 42-bed shelter. Colligan didn’t feel safe in the shelter, and she ended up in another housing situation — but that wasn’t a safe place either. In August 2022, outreach workers urged her to accept a spot at Little’s Too.
The supportive housing building was built near the former Hollywood Motel, which had been purchased by Atira Women’s Resource Society in 2017, remodelled, and renamed Little’s Place after Santanna Scott-Huntinghawk, a young woman who died of an overdose in a tent in 2016. Her nickname was Little.
In 2022, Little’s Too opened next to Little’s Place on King George Boulevard.
The housing solution that wasn’t
Colligan said that when she accepted a unit at Little’s Too, she was told the building was for women and children. But she says the reality is much different, and she’s afraid of many of the men who visit other residents at the building.
Damon said she observed Colligan’s mental health worsen in the months after she moved into the building.
“She thought she was going into a home that was going to support her and her needs and help her get better and help her with her mental health,” Damon said. “In fact, it was quite the opposite. I think I was able to calm her and she was in a better place prior to her being at Little’s.”
While Colligan has gone back to Little’s Too several times since the Christmas Day assault, she frequently gets into conflicts with staff and hasn’t stayed for more than a few days.
In March, Colligan was assaulted again, this time while she was not living at Little’s Too. Covered in bruises, Colligan sought refuge in Stopa’s backyard. “It took me two weeks to leave the backyard,” she said.
Colligan lived in Stopa’s backyard in a tent for five weeks, and until the fire in July she often returned there to sleep on a makeshift bed cobbled together from patio furniture, blankets and pillows under a towering cedar tree. Stopa said Colligan slowly got better in the backyard, with Stopa and other friends nearby to provide support.
Stopa said she knew something bad happened to her friend last Christmas, but it took months for Colligan to open up about how she’d been hurt.
“Us street people have a different way of dealing with things,” Stopa said. “We rely on each other for support and we always rely on each other to help take care of the problem. We don't always go to the authorities because a lot of the time they don’t care.”