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Christmas charity’s struggle to find depot space highlights growing challenges faced by non-profits

For more than two decades, the Surrey Christmas Bureau has been providing toys and raising smiles for underprivileged children — but this year, they’re in need of a Christmas miracle themselves.

Every year, the bureau looks for a donated space in the city where it can set up a toy distribution centre. But a real estate crunch has led to a lack of available warehouses, retail spaces and offices and the organization has yet to find a space as the holiday season approaches. 

“We really need somebody to help us out, to find that perfect toy depot space,” said executive director Lisa Werring, who said the bureau would usually have secured a space by now and would be moving in by mid-October.

“We actually have to start distributing toys in early November. We have about 2,000 families [coming to us] every year and logistically speaking, it takes a long time to make sure that we are able to properly serve all of those families.”

Renting a space year-round would be too expensive for the organization, Werring said. 

Allison Brewin, a non-profit consultant, says charities that rely solely on donations are limited in what they can spend their money on, adding that a lot of funds go toward administrative and maintenance costs.

“Donors and funders often don’t provide enough money for that part of the work,” she said.

As rising inflation adds to the cost of living and business, Brewin says organizations like the Christmas bureau are also finding themselves in growing competition for space with commercial businesses and large institutions.

“What we’re seeing right now is that non-profits, particularly smaller ones … really get stuck,” said Brewin. “They find it really challenging not only to find space but find the right funding and money to make the space workable for them.”

Werring says the charity would ideally like to secure a space that’s accessible by transit in central Surrey. It would need to be about 10,000 to 15,000 square feet in size and be on the ground floor for accessibility.

Inder Randhawa, general manager of the Seva Thrift Store, says their rent is due to double by next year. Specializing in Indian wear, the store donates all proceeds to charitable causes. (Sohrab Sandhu/CBC News)

Year-round charities also struggling

Charities that operate from a year-round base are also struggling as rent increases.

Inder Randhawa, general manager of the Seva Thrift Store in Surrey, says she is expecting rent to double next year.

The store on Scott Road, which specializes in traditional Indian clothes, donates profits to local community projects and organizations, including the Surrey Christmas Bureau. 

“It was complete and utter shock that we have no choice, that there is no ramifications around rent increases for commercial lot buildings that there are for residential,” said Randhawa, adding she would rather their proceeds go toward causes and initiatives than rent.

Randhawa says the store has contacted listing agents to find a different space but has had no luck so far.

“Ultimately, we are very vulnerable where even if we sign a two- or three-year lease, it may not be renewed again,” said Randhawa. “We may have to move again and again due to future development.”

Randhawa says ultimately she would love to be able to purchase a permanent location for the store “and not be tied to this uncertainty.”

But the uncertainty might only grow for small non-profits in the area, Brewin believes.

“It’s going to get amplified and and exaggerated because of the cost of living changes and the staffing crisis that every kind of organization is faced with today,” she said — and that could have a knock-on effect on sectors ranging from the arts to social services and mental health support.

“We don’t always realize, I think, how integrated our lives are with the nonprofit sector in Canada,” said Brewin. 

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