Homelessness and drug addiction are parts of daily life for those living on Surrey’s “Whalley Strip.”
And for expectant mothers, these challenges mean living in constant fear for the well-being of their children.
“Being down here, it’s scary being pregnant, right?” said Tamara Ashley, who is six months pregnant. “It’s not easy. It’s really not. It’s hard to stay warm. Warmth is the hardest thing to get.”
Ashley is among some 130 people who live in tents along a notorious stretch of 135A Street where paramedics responded to more than 550 overdose and poisoning calls last year alone.
The 31-year-old said she’s addicted to heroin and injects the opioid three to four times a day.
And while her drug use poses serious health risks for her baby, Ashley said doctors have told her that stopping now could mean losing the child altogether.
“It’s easier for a baby to withdraw out of you than in you,” she said. “I knew because I’ve had two other babies being addicted, that I couldn’t stop using. I ended going to the hospital one night because I almost stopped completely.”
In addition to the dangers of being exposed to drugs and living outdoors, Ashley, who has been dealing with homelessness and addiction since she was a teenager, said working on the street can also be a threat to pregnant women.
“It’s scary. Some guys, they get offensive to it when they find out, so you’ve got to hide it,” she said. “There’s others that don’t even end up doing the date because they feel sorry…One of my dates recently started bringing me packages of food because he found out I was pregnant.
“There’s some people out there with a heart, but then there’s other people who say ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ you know?”
At night, outreach workers try to connect with homeless women like Ashley, offering them food and supplies from the back of a van.
“We just access the women, let them know about our programs, our transition houses,” said June Calliou, a support worker with Atira Women’s Resource Society. “There’s a lot of people that know us. They come to us when they need to.”
The hope is to help these women access shelters where they can give birth in a safe environment, but there are often not enough beds for everyone.
“It’s terrible to have to turn anyone away,” said Maura Gowans of Maxine Wright Place.
The 12-bed facility for pregnant women has to turn expectant mothers away almost every day due to a lack of space.
“There’s just a huge need for this and there’s not enough resources,” Gowans said.
Women can stay at the shelter until their babies are six months old before they are transitioned into other housing.
Some expectant mothers on the Strip, however, have had to face giving birth under shocking circumstances.
Joleen Mann, a homeless woman whose daughter was born on Dec. 10, said she ended up having to give birth on the sidewalk at the corner of 128 Street and 88 Avenue.
“I lay down on the ground and there was no holding her back in. She was coming out now,” she said.
That morning, she had found herself alone in a friend’s abandoned house when she starting experiencing contractions.
With no one around to help her and no way of calling for an ambulance, Mann waited three hours before her friends came back and helped. Thankfully, paramedics arrived within minutes of her daughter being born and took care of Mann and her child.
Mann said the province told her she could keep her daughter if she finds a place to live, but that she’s been struggling to find something affordable.
Even when women manage to carry their babies to term, the exposure to hard drugs in the womb can leave newborns suffering from horrific withdrawal symptoms—a process Ashley said she’s familiar with after the births of her two older children.
“It was really torture seeing them go through that withdrawal—the shakes, the sneezing, everything,” she said.
Both children are now in adoptive homes. It’s a situation she says she’s determined to avoid with her third child, who will stay with Ashley’s mother in Abbotsford once she’s born.
Ashley said that if she can get clean after the birth, child protection officials have told he she can move in with her mother and help take care of the baby.
She said she intends to “do everything I can” to get clean and live a life that matches the name she plans to give her daughter: Serenity-Hope.
With files from CTV Vancouver’s Michele Brunoro