COLUMN: Walking Surrey’s infamous Strip

As a social worker, I felt deeply moved by what I saw. I don’t believe in being critical of an issue without proposing a solution so I will present one idea.

By Alex Sangha/For the Now-Leader

I live in a beautiful, relatively new glass tower adjacent to the King George SkyTrain station. It’s a Concord Pacific development. My building has a concierge, games room, movie theatre, bowling alley, fully-equipped gym and steam room, among other amenities.

Holland Park, SFU Surrey, and Central City Mall are all across the street. I have a secure underground parking spot in the heart of the new Surrey City Centre. I basically have been living in my own protected bubble for the last couple of years.

I recently decided to step out of my comfort zone to discover the neighbourhood and get into shape. I started walking down King George Boulevard and explored the new City Centre Library, City Hall, North Surrey Recreation Centre and Surrey Civic Plaza.

Everything was impressive.

Then I ended up on 135A Street – Whalley’s infamous Strip. My God! I basically walked into Surrey’s own mini-Downtown Eastside! There were at least 100 tents and each tent had three or four homeless people inside. Unfortunately, many of the homeless people were noticeably sick with either drug and alcohol addiction, malnourishment or mental illness. There was a lack of hygiene and stench of urine. I am sure this is a breeding ground for disease and infection.

I was surprised to see so many young people. I found this very sad as it’s a reflection of the new reality for some of our next generation with an out-of-control inflated housing market and combined opioid drug crisis and I guess perhaps a lack of good paying jobs for youth.

A friend of mine believes that most politicians probably don’t care if homeless drug addicts die of an overdose.

Apparently, they don’t have value as human beings in the eyes of our decision makers. If they did, my friend argues, there would be long-term solutions proposed and acted on to help the city’s poor and homeless.

The local authorities are doing something, however. I discovered that the Surrey RCMP clear out the tents and homeless people almost every day. They force them to move but they have nowhere to go! This is a really a poor and pathetic attempt to clean up this tent city in the heart of Whalley.

The local residents and businesses want the Whalley Strip cleaned up. It’s a black mark on Surrey and more so on the British Columbia government, I would argue, as housing and social services is largely a provincial responsibility.

As a social worker, I felt deeply moved by what I saw. I don’t believe in being critical of an issue without proposing a solution so I will present one idea.

First, some people say that even if the poor and homeless on the Strip were offered housing, they would end up back on the Strip because of the social support, relationships, networks, daily routine and lifestyle they have developed there.

For example, they become street entrenched and there are benefits to this such as access to free food and easy availability of drugs. I feel there is probably some truth to this.

So, what is the solution?

I would recommend that the various levels of government consider developing “transitional housing” in Surrey where people can benefit from a similar social support network they receive on the Strip while learning to live more independently with a healthier lifestyle in a supported housing model.

The goal eventually would be for people to move out and settle into good quality housing with supports in neighbourhoods throughout the Lower Mainland when they are back on their feet and can more successfully integrate back into society.

I feel it’s next to impossible to effectively treat the mentally ill or provide drug and alcohol daytox or detox or eventually help people find jobs if they are homeless and living in tents.

The British Columbia government needs to look at transitional housing models around the world and determine what would be a good fit for Surrey and the Lower Mainland.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of hope in the province developing any new housing for the poor and homeless in Surrey. Maybe an incoming new NDP government will have a change of heart.

We will see!

Alex Sangha is a social worker who lives in Surrey.