Making space for community self-defence: An interview with the Whalley Centre’s Wanda Stopa
Wanda Stopa is a long-time street community leader in the Whalley neighbourhood of Surrey, a low-income area in Metro Vancouver’s biggest suburb. A perpetual creator, Wanda has fought persistently in defence of the lives of dignity of her community. During the time of the “135A Strip” homeless encampment, Wanda organized meetings of people living on the Strip and actions against the City of Surrey’s policing policies. After the City displaced the Strip in 2018, Wanda organized Sanctuary Tent City, a smaller encampment in a wooded area off of King George Highway.
Since the City bulldozed Sanctuary, Wanda has become an official member of Red Braid and helped found the Whalley People’s Resource Centre in the Red Braid office, a street community run space free from the regulatory powers of police and social workers that follow low-income people through the streets and shelters of Surrey. In this interview, Isabel Krupp talks with Wanda Stopa about why the Whalley People’s Resource Centre is needed, and what it means for her and her community.
What is the Whalley People’s Resource Centre?
The Whalley Centre is a warming centre for the homeless, the low-income housing people, for the Surrey community – the Whalley community, I should say. Every Friday night they can come in and get warm, have something hot to eat and drink, and friendly chit chat if they want it.
Between the hours of 11pm and 7am, it gets real cold, and there’s nowhere for us to go now. Especially now. If you’re homeless, there’s absolutely nothing. The shelters are all full. There’s nowhere for you to get warm, to go get dry, to see a friendly face. There’s nothing out there for you right now and it sucks. And it’s stupid because there’s no reason why; there are so many buildings and resources out here that aren’t being used. So we are. Red Braid is using our resources and our space to help.
Can you explain why you call it a “street-run centre”?
It’s for the people, run by the people, as I say. Whoever wants to volunteer their time, they have to come to one of our Street Council meetings. Anybody who comes to one of those, if they want to volunteer for a shift, they’re more than welcome.
The Street Council meets every Sunday and we discuss current events, things going on in the community, we talk about our warming centre, and just get in touch with everybody. If there’s anything we can do to help, we’ll try our best to do it – with protests and marches, squats, and our voices. Our meetings have been growing lately because we have also been working on a campaign against bylaw sweeps against people on the streets, which is a long time coming.
It’s a matter of getting the people to realize that we’re not here to just make a show. We’re actually doing something and sticking to it. We don’t give up. We keep fighting. That’s why I like being a part of Red Braid. That’s what gave me the ambition to do what I’ve done so far: knowing that somebody does care and will listen and help whatever way they can. That’s been a great inspiration for me.
The Whalley Centre is run by the Street Council, with support from Red Braid. How do you think that makes the space different from social worker-run spaces?
The difference is we’re not forcing anybody to do anything they don’t want to do. We’re not in their face, “You’ve got to do this, this, and this.” In social worker-run spaces, you walk in and you have a worker in your face, “Fill out this, fill out this.” Well, that’s not why I’m here; I’m here to get warm, not to listen to your crap, because you guys don’t do nothing anyway. We don’t want to have nothing to do with them, because they’ve already jerked us around for so long.
Here at the Whalley Centre, it’s more relaxed. We let people be themselves, without those pressures, and I find people are really relaxed. What we’re doing, it’s not because we’re being forced to or paid to. We’re doing it because we want to, because we care and want to help.
You’ve talked before about this project as a way to build up the confidence and organizing capacity of people on the streets.
It gives you something to look forward to. You figure out, “Okay, what can I bring to the group?” Then you bring it. Like Johnny, he’s the one who’s been leading the bylaw stuff, so that gives him an incentive to start realizing, “Hey, I’ve got some responsibilities that I’ve got to make sure I get done.” It gives them a boost in themselves to have that responsibility and organization, just helping out in their community. It makes them feel better about themselves. I know it does for me. That’s all what matters is building your self-esteem back up and getting in touch with yourself and your community.
Part of the significance of a space like this is that it’s a community hub where people can come together. What factors have broken up the Whalley street community over the years?
Bylaw, the cops, the shutdown of the Strip. Everybody going into mods, and once you went into those mods, it sort of took everybody apart and spread us out. Now with the mods getting closed down, people who aren’t back on the street are going into hotels and motels, which are even farther apart. So, it’s been really hard to stay in touch, stay involved in community stuff when you’re not even around here anymore.
Our tent cities, all three of them, were dismantled by the RCMP and Bylaw. Sanctuary Tent City, which was down at the bushes, it breaks my heart. I’m going to start crying. They came in with their tractors and big equipment, and just destroyed the forest. It’s a mud pit down there now. They did more damage than we did. As homeless people, camping down there, we respected the land, where they don’t respect the land. And the Strip – well, nobody’s on there anymore. You hardly see anybody there. If you are standing around talking to your friends and cops drive by, they come and harass you, tell you to move along, move along.
They don’t want us in Whalley because we’re embarrassing the City or the mayor. Well, too bad. Deal with it. We’re here. We’re not going to go away.
You know, they don’t want us in Whalley because we’re embarrassing the City or the mayor. Well, too bad. Deal with it. We’re here. We’re not going to go away. Deal with it properly, don’t just keep shuffling and pushing people around, because that’s just bullshit. Putting people in a hotel, how’s that helping? It’s not helping anybody get into a real home. They’re supposed to be helping you get out of those places and into a home, but everybody is still in those places, which is wrong. They’re not helping. They’re making things worse and people are dying like crazy right now.
In that context, it seems like the Whalley Centre has political significance.
It shows that we’re here and we’re not going away. We need help, so help. Shuffling people and hiding them isn’t helping.
Have there been any challenges running the space as a street-run centre?
The donation part has been the most challenging so far, trying to get the materials we need. If COVID wasn’t here, it would probably be different. But because of COVID a lot of people aren’t donating. We need warm coats, blankets, socks, underwear, gloves, toques. Just things to keep you warm.
If you have donations for the Whalley People’s Resource Centre, please email Red Braid at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 604-630-1722 to arrange a drop-off or pick-up.