British Columbia

Friends reflect on legacy of Surrey's 'Guardian Angel' one year after his death

Hanging on the lobby wall of the modular housing complex on King George Blvd. near 105 Avenue in Surrey is a picture of the man the facility is named after — “Little” Doug Nickerson.

'Little' Doug Nickerson is remembered for saving 148 overdose victims on 135A Street strip

Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner presented Doug Nickerson with the Heart of the City Award. (City of Surrey)

Hanging on the lobby wall of the modular housing complex on King George Blvd. near 105 Avenue in Surrey is a picture of the man the facility is named after — "Little" Doug Nickerson.

It's a fitting tribute.

It was not far from here that Nickerson saved the lives of 148 overdose victims on 135A Street, which is notorious for drug use.

Some of those overdose survivors now live at Nickerson Place.

"By naming this building Lookout Housing and Health Society honours the life and legacy of a local homeless champion, Doug Nickerson," says the caption below Nickerson's photo.

"During the 2016 opioid epidemic, he saved hundreds of lives."

Nickerson died in October 2017 after battling pancreatic cancer but Wes Everaars, the society's director of development, says his presence is still felt.

"We missed him horribly, Everaars said. "He was a great guy and a selfless person."

Doug Nickerson stands on 135A Street in Surrey in 2016. (Jared Thomas/CBC)

Guardian angel

During the peak of the overdose crisis, Nickerson became known as the Guardian Angel of 135A Street.

He was one of the first people to receive naloxone training and he carried his kit with him everywhere he went. The drug can save lives by neutralizing the effects of an opioid overdose.

Mike Musgrove, executive director of Surrey Urban Mission, had never seen naloxone before he met Little Doug.

"He had the case strapped to his belt like he was a gunslinger," Musgrove said.

"He was always ready to draw that thing and save lives."

No one was quicker on the draw than Nickerson, who would jump on his bike and race over to help whenever there was an overdose on his street.

"He probably saved one person every two or three days," Everaars said.

Nickerson was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in April, 2017. (Jesse Johnston/CBC)

Neighbourhood in transition

Nickerson dealt with addiction issues and homelessness himself, so he had credibility with people who lived in tents. When a bad batch of drugs hit the street, Nickerson warned outreach workers.

When a vulnerable person wasn't willing to ask for help, Nickerson connected them with the support they needed.

"His interactions with individuals on the street probably saved another 100 people," Everaars said.

"He built that communication where there can be gaps with service providers."

Surrey city councillor Vera LeFranc congratulates Nickerson on his award at Surrey City Hall. (City of Surrey)

Missing Little Doug

In his prime, Nickerson's energy was limitless but cancer eventually took its toll.

Eventually, he stopped riding his BMX bike with flames painted on it.

In an interview with CBC in 2017, he recalled how he was once in too much pain to help a victim who was overdosing so he threw his naloxone kit to a crowd of people who were running to help the overdose victim.

By that time, dozens of community members had naloxone training, so someone was able to scoop up the kit and reverse the effects of the overdose.

"The way I Iook at it, I'm always on call," Nickerson said. "It's not like I can call in sick."

Nickerson admires his award at his home in Surrey. (Jesse Johnston/CBC)

Heart of the city

Nickerson was honoured with Surrey's Heart of the City Award in October, 2017.

He thought about skipping the gala at City Hall because he was so ill, but his friends talked him into going.

As he stood next to Mayor Linda Hepner to pose for a picture, he had his Naloxone kit beneath his coat. "You never know when you're going to need it," he said.

"What if I run into someone in the parking lot who is overdosing?"

Nickerson died two days after he received the award. He was 59.

Tents and their residents crowd the side of 135A Street in Surrey. (CBC News)

Then and now

Today, 135A Street looks much different than it did when Nickerson was patrolling the area on his bike.

In June of 2018, 173 people were moved from their tents into shelters or temporary modular housing units, such as those at Nickerson Place.

Everaars says Nickerson helped make that move possible by building trust between the homeless community and service providers.

"He'd invite someone in for one of the meals we'd serve and while he was there, he'd get them talking to someone who could connect them with housing," Everaars said.

"The people of Surrey really need to understand that Dougie really made a big difference."

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