Surrey Homelessness and Housing Society

Scrawled into the damp walls were the dark truths of the Motel Hollywood, written by scores of women who had passed through.

“There were all kinds of stories,” recalls Janice Abbott, CEO of Atira Women’s Resource Society. “It was heartbreaking.” Stories of rape and trauma, but also stories of love. “It was something to behold.”

In September 2017, Janice and her team had just taken possession of their new property, a once-notorious establishment in Surrey, where sirens had rung out daily and women were profoundly exploited.

They photographed the words of the women to honour them, knowing Atira would tear down the writing on the walls to make way for a new story: one of a home where vulnerable women have all the support they need to find solid ground in their lives.

The transformation found a catalyst with the Surrey Homelessness and Housing Society, which provided a $75,000 responsive grant for sorely needed renovations. Created by the City of Surrey with a $9 million endowment over 10 years ago, the Society’s Fund is managed by Vancity Community Foundation to support programs, projects and initiatives that make a difference in the lives of people who are homeless or at-risk of homelessness in Surrey.

“The Surrey Homelessness and Housing Society and the Foundation share a commitment to forge solutions to homelessness and poverty and creating housing is one way we do this,” says Allison Felker, the Foundation’s Interim Executive Director. “Little’s Place is an excellent example of how investments in social purpose real estate can transform lives.”

“When one funder makes that first leap, it’s a leap of faith,” says Janice.”That first leap gives confidence to other funders that the project is viable.” Atira leveraged the renovation funding for grants from other foundations, anonymous donors and the Province. Then, they gutted the walls.

The new home would have new name, Little’s Place, aiming to give vulnerable women all the emotional support they need, with two staff on site at all times, a community kitchen, life skills training, transportation and more.

The name Little’s Place comes from “Little”, the nickname of a young First Nations woman, Santanna Huntinghawk Scott, who died alone at 19 of a fentanyl overdose in a wet tent beside Surrey’s King George Boulevard, months after she aged out of the foster care system with nowhere to go.

“We wanted to honour her memory and her life, by creating a place where vulnerable women like her have a safe place to be,” says Janice.

When Little’s Place opened last year, Carmen Brunsch and her two cats, Mouse and Monkey, were among the first residents. At 48, Brunsch became homeless for the fourth time when she left an abusive relationship. Living in a temporary shelter in Cloverdale, she knew her stay was running out. Even though she was working full-time as a maintenance person for $18 an hour, she wasn’t able to find a home she could afford.

“Having this place brought me a lot of personal security. I feel better being here,” she says. That security has allowed her to take care of things.

She started speaking to her mom again after 11 years and is taking legal action to address an injustice that marred her life years earlier. Atira employees have also helped her get badly needed health care for a serious medical condition, which means she is unable to work for the moment. But she keeps busy around the home, cooking, gardening and acting as a “mother hen” to younger women in the shelter. For Easter, she cooked dinner in the community kitchen, complete with pumpkin pie.

For her, Little’s Place feels like a big family.“I don’t have any family here,” says Carmen. “I didn’t have anywhere to go. I came here and they helped me.”

With an eye to the future, the Surrey Homelessness and Housing Society also provided its first-ever impact investment loan, a low-interest, long-term loan of $250,000 to help Atira purchase a property next to the motel. As Atira already owned the motel and another adjacent property, the long-term plan is to consolidate the three lots to eventually build even more homes for women and children.