Lying cops, abusive staff, and needed housing: Life in and out of Surrey’s modular housing

BC Housing is planning to close down 46 units of low-income housing this week, as COVID-19 rates surge and hundreds, if not thousands, of BC renters face homelessness in the coming weeks with the end of the eviction moratorium in September.

Nickerson Place, a two-year-old modular housing building in the Whalley neighbourhood of central Surrey, operated by Lookout Society, is being shuttered so that the high-end real estate developer Bosa Properties can build a luxury condo tower on the site. The City of Surrey approved Bosa Properties’ application despite
vocal opposition from the low-income community, including Nickerson Place residents.

The City of Surrey and BC Housing always intended Nickerson Place to be a temporary site, but promised that permanent housing would be built in time to rehouse residents. Since opening modular housing to displace the “Whalley Strip” encampment on 135A Street two years ago, homelessness in Surrey has continued to grow as evictions and low-income housing demolitions have far outpaced the opening of welfare rate affordable housing. Now BC Housing and the City of Surrey are shutting Nickerson Place down quietly, without so much as acknowledging that the closure means the loss of 46 welfare-rate units for a condo tower.

Kristina Freberg has been a resident of Nickerson Place since she was displaced from the 135A Whalley Strip in 2018. She wrote this article about her journey from homelessness on the Strip to the “nightmare” of life in modular housing. In her article, Kristina explains the urgent need to stop BC Housing’s closure and demolition of the low-income housing in the mods while also fighting against the institutional “supportive housing” model used to operate this building and every building in BC Housing’s modular housing project.

The Volcano editors

Before the nightmare of the mods, I was living in a tent on the Strip. I had been there for about three years when they put up an outreach tent with donuts and coffee. The next thing you know, there were a bunch of us gathered around and they were telling us how we’d be able to apply for supportive modular housing.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the outreach workers all knew enough about each of us to tell us what we needed to hear to sell us on filling out an application. All of my questions surrounded my kids, and they told me there was no reason my kids couldn’t come visit me at the temporary mods, that there would be programs in place to help me do whatever I needed to do to have my kids around more. And that the second housing placement would definitely be a place my kids could stay.

The other thing they told us was that everyone from the Strip would be housed in the modulars. They told us we would all have housing. That was really important for us. We didn’t feel okay with some of us going in and some of us not. We were a community. We all cared about each other like a family. If one of us was going in, we wanted all of us to go in. But obviously that wasn’t how it went

Kristina Freberg speaking on June 24, 2020, as police dismantled the short-lived Whalley World tent city (Listen Chen/Volcano)

None of us had any idea that they were going to entirely shut down the Strip. They took us by surprise on that one. A couple of weeks beforehand, the outreach workers went up and down the Strip handing out strips of paper, telling each person where they were going to go. They handed them out over a period of time, which kept us thinking that everyone was going to get one.

Then the next thing you know, it was the move day and a lot of people hadn’t gotten a placement. All of a sudden, people were talking about how they were shutting down the Strip. At that point, I was seriously considering not taking my placement because I didn’t want to go into housing and not have all my friends go into housing. But then they started shutting down the Strip, saying there will be no more tents here. They proceeded in a very militant style. They were nonstop up and down the street, banging on tents and yelling. It was so loud and so scary. I’ve never been so scared in my life. It felt like the end of the world. I guess in a way it kind of was. 

I thought, “Why are they making us sign away our rights? What are they going to do to us?”

When I realized they were really shutting down the Strip, I decided it would be best just to take my placement. When I got to the mods, they gave me paperwork to fill out. It basically said the Residential Tenancy Act doesn’t cover your situation, so don’t bother. I knew right away there was going to be a problem. I thought, “Why are they making us sign away our rights? What are they going to do to us?” 

I refuse to be told that I have no rights. I’ve had to fight for them. Nobody acknowledges my rights here unless I threaten arbitration. Then they jump up and do what they’re supposed to do. A couple months ago the washer and dryer broke down, and the manager put up signs saying there would be no more laundry here, that we would have to take our laundry to the laundromat. I jumped on his case and told him we don’t have any money to go to the laundromat. He just said, “Oh well.” I said, “Oh well, I guess I’ll have to go to arbitration then.” The next day they installed a washer and dryer. 

The Surrey Strip shutdown was an attack on the street community 

The whole reason the modular housing happened is they realized that if all of us on that block really got worked up over something, they were screwed. We fought back when the cops and bylaw showed up to  take Candace’s dog away. Everyone loved that dog. The cops surrounded us, but then all of us surrounded them. There were cops solid all the way down the block. But there was us too. And that’s when it started. They wanted to split us up. 

The shutdown of the Strip shut down our relationships. A lot of them are severed now. We still see each other and help each other out, but not like before. We were a tight knit community, a family really, and it doesn’t feel like that anymore.

We’ve had even more overdoses since the coronavirus pandemic started and Lookout banned guests.

There was a kid here last year, a young guy. I don’t know if he relapsed or was just a weekend warrior on a bender or what. But he overdosed and got dug, and he came here looking for the person that dug him. He was running around with a machete, all threatening. I managed to get him out of here calmly, and he went down to the Strip. Then the cops got called and wound up shooting the kid. If we were still down there on the Strip, that never would have happened. There is no way that kid would have made it five tents without a bunch of us disarming him, physically, but peacefully. No guns, we don’t have guns or anything like that. A bunch of us would have jumped on him and that would have been like that. 

There is more violence in the mods than there ever was on the Strip. Outsiders come in to make money. Bigger dealers come in and bully younger kids into letting them shack out their rooms. When that happened, rather than staff and management cracking down and dealing with the dope dealers, they just evicted the kids. Two young kids, back on the street because the staff were too chickenshit to deal with it, because they were scared of retaliation. 

We had a lot of overdoses too because of outside dope. The dope we had for each other, we knew it was okay. We’ve had even more overdoses since the coronavirus pandemic started and Lookout banned guests.

Living under the thumb of Crookout Society

They are shutting the TD mods down so that Bosa Properties can build condos here. At the public hearing, everyone spoke against the condo development. What is the point of a government that just goes against what the people want? When I spoke, the Mayor cut me off and talked to me like he was my dad. He told me there are five permits underway right now for housing the homeless. But it means nothing until they’re built. 

Who knows where I’ll go. Nobody’s helping me find a place, and it’s not easy down here with no job, no ID, a criminal record.

When Lookout asked me where I want to live, I said, “Here. I’m not going anywhere.” That was my answer up until a few months ago. Then I realized it’s real. They’re really going to shut this place down. I feel like they’re stepping on our backs. There is so much uncertainty. Lookout just evicted a bunch of people, instead of giving them housing. Who knows where I’ll go. Nobody’s helping me find a place, and it’s not easy down here with no job, no ID, a criminal record. 

I got into an argument with one of the workers the other day because he wouldn’t give someone harm reduction supplies. He ended it by saying, “At the end of the day, you’re going to be out of here in a week. You’re going to be back on the street.” When he left his shift, he said to me, “Have a good day. I’m going home to my king size bed. Have a nice life on the street.” 

Lookout is so negligent in our care. I don’t think they should be allowed to run supportive housing or anything for that matter. I think they should be shut down, they should be abolished. Richard Turton, the Residential Manager, assaulted me and they’ve done nothing about it. They are a bunch of crooks. We call them Crookout. 

The first time I met Richard was room inspection. He came into my room and pulled out his phone and proceeded to try to take pictures of my room without asking my permission. I said, “Hey, you can’t take pictures.” I put my hand in front of his phone. He tried to move his phone around me and I grabbed his phone. That was our first interaction and it never got better from there. 

My room was broken into three times last week, because I haven’t had a lock on my door in a year. I’ve asked the staff to fix it repeatedly. I put my own locks on and was told I would fail room inspection, which is cause for eviction. Last week when my room was broken into a third time, I was mad. The staff watch the security cameras all day and all night. How did they miss somebody going into my room? I yelled at Richard, “Do you get paid to look the other way?” He marched toward me and shoved me. I was floored. My friend said, “You have to call the cops.” Of course I didn’t want to call the cops, but she called them for me and I ended up telling them what happened. They showed up, went in and talked to Richard, then they came outside and told me that it was my fault. It was on me because I yelled at him. 

I’ve been abused by men my whole life. There is maybe one man in my life that never ever hit me. All my mom’s boyfriends, all my boyfriends, they’ve all been abusive. When you come into a place like this, you expect a certain level of empathy and professionalism out of these people. Not for them to turn around, charge at you and push you. 

Graffiti outside Nickerson Place, “Richard Turton Hits Women.” (Isabel Krupp/The Volcano)

I think Richard should be fired immediately. You should absolutely not be allowed to lay your hands on a tenant, period. But they are all responsible, the fact that they have done nothing about it. The cops blamed it on me, then all of the managers came out of the mod laughing and joking right in front of me.

The food is better in jail, the guards are better in jail. I feel like I’ve been warehoused, stuck on a shelf. I’ve gotten nothing out of it and my health is worse. People say it’s what you make of it. But I asked for support, I asked for help. I suggested programs. It wasn’t until I found out they were going to shut this place down that I quit trying.

They need to let us look after each other. Some people say we need tenant-run housing. Something along those lines would be good. Somewhere we can have our guests, where we can sit in the front yard, where we can sit in our rooms. At least let us have some say. At least take our advice, that would be a good start. 

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