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Abandoned community centre becomes Surrey's first COVID-19 Emergency Response Centre

Abandoned community centre becomes Surrey's first COVID-19 Emergency Response Centre

Surrey Urban Mission Society (SUMS) Executive Director Mike Musgrove is not what you might expect from the head of a non-profit organization. He is broad shouldered, stands taller than most, and is quick to smile. When his old office at SUMS headquarters was turned into an isolation room for suspected COVID-19 cases, he relocated atop the former ice rink that he helped convert into Surrey’s first emergency response centre.

"We had nothing, not even a pen." 

Mike Musgrove, Surrey Urban Mission Executive Director

Amid stacks of bottled water and an old toaster oven, Mike jokes that he almost had to live up there when the centre first opened. “We didn’t have enough overnight staff, so there was a real chance I would have had to sleep up here to get this place up and running,” Mike says with a laugh. “But our team came together quickly and we made it work.”

On April 2, 2020, BC Housing, SUMS, Fraser Health, and the City of Surrey finalized an agreement to turn the former North Surrey Recreation Centre into an Emergency Response Centre that would provide safe spaces for vulnerable people. The province, already in the grip of affordable housing and opioid crises, was now in a state of emergency brought on by the global COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Less than 24 hours earlier, protestors had drilled the doors and broken into the recreation centre, left locked after it was decommissioned in December 2019. They called on the government to provide safe spaces for people experiencing homelessness. The protestors left quietly after hanging banners and holding a press conference, but behind the scenes, BC Housing and others had been working for weeks to secure spaces across the province. Teams in towns big and small were busy securing hotels and community spaces; places that were left empty because of restrictions on public gathering and a stay-at-home order.

Once the agreement was signed in Surrey, the hard work started. The recreation centre was stripped of everything useful when decommissioned, so much of it had to be put back in. The City of Surrey sent in engineers to restore services, then conducted an expedited safety check, followed by a deep clean.

Abandoned community centre becomes Surrey's first COVID-19 Emergency Response Centre

“There were no toilets, no sinks, no running water,” explains Carmen Hall, BC Housing’s Coordinated Access and Assessment Manager for Shelter and Supportive Housing Operations in the Lower Mainland. Carmen is no stranger to a tough situation. Like many at BC Housing, Carmen supports people experiencing homelessness in Surrey.

Only months ago, Carmen and Mike were rushing to complete another important project – opening Surrey’s newest homeless shelter, The Cove. Located in Surrey’s Whalley neighbourhood, The Cove was a rapid response to a homeless encampment called Sanctuary City. By opening 42 new beds at The Cove, SUMS and Fraser Health were able to support dozens of street-entrenched people’s efforts to move out of the camp that sat alongside King George Boulevard. The move was a success and showed how BC Housing, SUMS, Fraser Health, the City of Surrey, and others could work together to provide solutions in a crisis.

Now, back together at the recreation centre, Carmen and Mike pulled off another feat.

“Within five days, we turned an empty hall into a safe space for dozens of people,” Carmen says. We will be able to support 110 guests. This place is a work in progress and we’re getting better every day.”

When they first moved in, there was nothing.

Abandoned community centre becomes Surrey's first COVID-19 Emergency Response Centre

“When we started this, there was no model to work from,” Mike remembers. “We looked at guidelines from provincial and Canadian health officials and had to reorganize the way we built an emergency shelter. We had to iterate and make changes on the fly.”

Rolls and rolls of masking tape were used to create physical distance guidelines on what was once an ice hockey rink. Now, each bed sits at least 10 feet from another, with pathways designed to ensure people stay at least six feet apart.

Staff had to scavenge what they could find from what was left behind. A shelf left in the old yoga studio now holds naloxone kits for Fraser Health. A baby changing table left behind near the pool became a desk. In all, 27 plastic chairs were found and what couldn’t be found was brought in from BC Housing, the City of Surrey, and other shelters. Donated clothes and supplies now live in what was once a skate shop. The cubbies hold shirts and other toiletries that are given to new arrivals.

A former preschool was transformed into Fraser Health’s base of operations. Personal protective equipment (PPE) now hangs from the low hooks where childrens’ backpacks used to sway. The health team that has taken up residence wrote their names above the hooks, just like the students used to do.

Fraser Health is onsite as part of an innovative partnership that embeds front-line health workers from their Integrated Response Team into the emergency response centre. Integrated Response Team members provide individualized support to vulnerable people, helping with everything from accessing medical services to finding housing or substance use treatment options. They even helped a centre guest sign up for income assistance.

Abandoned community centre becomes Surrey's first COVID-19 Emergency Response Centre

The centre is situated across from the Surrey Central SkyTrain station and bus loop, and the health team has spent years building relationships with the community. The team hands out flyers on safe hygiene and listens to concerns from people still hesitant to come into the shelter for one reason or another. The more they listen, the more people experiencing homelessness are willing to come stay at the emergency response centre.

Every guest at the centre receives a warm shower, new clothes, and is screened for COVID-19. Fraser Health carries out testing and oversees access to the spaces set out by BC Housing.

No one has been diagnosed with COVID-19 at the emergency response centre, but many people come here already ill from other things and the centre helps them get well again. The Integrated Response Team has also helped several people start their journey to end substance use as well.

For people at the emergency response centre who use opioids and other substances, an overdose prevention station and harm reduction supplies are located on-site. Fraser Health also works with physicians to offer opioid agonist treatment to help those looking to end their addictions.

This centre is important because people are coming in off the street and getting rest. They are being heard and validated – and that’s a big support.

Fraser Health is an important partner beyond helping guests because they are also sharing their knowledge with the teams.

“Training has been important. This pandemic has forced us to completely redesign our staffing model. We’re all learning so much. Everything from donning and doffing PPE to proper sanitizing techniques,” Mike says. “We’ve moved from wearing street clothes to wearing scrubs that are sent out for wash every day. The city has also stepped up to provide hand sanitizer and other supplies.”

Since opening, the centre has solved challenges and presses on into the pandemic. It is a safe harbour to guests that range from 19-years-old to 72. Like most facilities, they are trying to source sanitizer and other supplies. But the most valuable support comes from partners. Fraser Health has played an essential role in helping order personal protective equipment for the centre.

“Working with Fraser Health on this project has been a dream,” Mike says. “The level of care that comes into play because they are here onsite has been a whole other level. And BC Housing has been an amazing help. There hasn’t been a challenge they haven’t overcome and working with Carmen has been incredible.”