TENT CITY TENSION: Crackdown leaves Surrey homeless feeling like ‘garbage’

Surrey’s homeless are organizing to fight back in wake of crackdown as city scrambles to deal with sudden explosion of homelessness

WHALLEY — Tears streamed down Wanda’s cheeks as she gazed upon all her worldly belongings.

Tucked into shopping carts and large duffel bags, mostly, her items laid hidden under sleeping bags and tarps.

She was told to throw most of it out that day.

“This is it today. I’m going to give you that one final thing. You need to downsize,” a bylaw officer told her the morning of Thursday, April 21. “You need to be mobile.”

The crackdown in Whalley comes as Surrey struggles to deal with an explosion of homelessness by ramping up enforcement.

For Wanda, enforcement means downsizing. Standing on the sidewalk, she was crushed.

“The things I’m going to leave behind, these are the only things I have left,” said a shaken Wanda.

“I have things friends have given me over time. Just little things, dumb things to a lot of people, but to us out here on the street, this is all we have left.”

Wanda and another woman named Ocean led a group of street folk in Whalley to take a stand for themselves recently, demanding the city help them after feeling “yo-yo’d” around.

They set up a tent city on a private lot next to the Front Room Drop-in Centre, which has since been fenced.

They’re asking the city to either pick a spot for them to set up their tents or find them housing.

Wanda, who said she’s been homeless for more than two years, said the city’s treatment of them has been harsh.

A major concern of those on the street is what to do with their belongings. They say the response from the bylaw department has “intensified.”

“Nobody really started standing up to them or fighting until I came along,” Wanda remarked. “I’m not a piece of garbage. I’m someone who has rights and has feelings and I deserve respect. I’m exhausted. I’m down to my wit’s end. Trust me, I don’t want to be here anymore.”

The city, local agencies and BC Housing responded and have opened up emergency beds, mats on floors in places such as Surrey Urban Mission Society and Hyland House beginning April 20.

Sixteen people took respite at SUMS that first night. Another 20 or so beds are available, if needed, through other locations.

But all must leave by 7 a.m., and Wanda made it back to her belongings on the sidewalk on 135A Street by 8:30 a.m. the next morning to find bylaw and RCMP already on scene, like they are every day.

Bylaw staff were throwing garbage and unclaimed belongings into the back of a city truck.

A woman named Heather (pictured) guarded Wanda’s belongings before she arrived.

“I’ve lost my stuff, they’ve thrown it away,” said Heather. “All my jewelry that I had from my mom, the ring I was supposed to hand down to my daughter, it’s gone.”

People were being awoken from their tents and told to move on.

One man packed up and moved his belongings down the street, relocating them to in front of the Gateway Emergency Shelter. Leaving them unattended for a few minutes resulted in the stuff being thrown into the back of the truck by bylaw staff.

“I got my tent back,” he told the Now as he was walking away. “They let me get my tent.”

A man named Mitch stood on 135A Street that Thursday morning and watched as tents were being dismantled.

“It seems everyone is at odds with each other,” he remarked.

Mitch wants the city and providers to hold an open forum at city hall to allow everyone to talk.

He expressed his discontent that refugees are being provided shelter from the government, while he sees the homeless being shuffled around.

“They get a home from the government, they get cash, they get dental, medical, they get all the aspects we have to fight for on a daily basis,” said Mitch. “They get it for free.”

Erin Schulte, founder of the Pop-Up Soup Kitchen, feels for her street friends.

“I have to replace it all,” she said of the items that are being thrown away.  “I’m going through a million blankets right now,” Schulte added as she folded up dozens of blankets to hand out that night.

‘SCRAMBLING’ AFTER INCREASE IN HOMELESS

Peter Fedos with Hyland House, one of the co-ordinators of the emergency bed response, said the increase of homelessness on 135A Street “happened so fast” and all involved are “scrambling on this one, to be honest.”

Fedos acknowledged the storage of their items is a challenge.

“We’re working on that,” he said.

The goal is to get them housed, stressed Fedos, adding “it doesn’t make sense to keep dismantling camps all the time.”

But housing these folks is going to be tough, he noted, simply because there’s a lack of adequate housing.

“We can put these resources there and get them ready for housing, but if there is no space, what do we do?”

Michael Musgrove, director of Surrey Urban Mission, said he walked the strip Wednesday (April 20) and “the tension was high.”

“These people are people that are struggling with not having a shelter to go to, a home to be in, they have all their stuff with them. Shopping carts are stolen property so they’re being removed, stuff’s being dumped out of them,” said Musgrove.

Surrey’s bylaw manager Jas Rehal said shelters were full the weekend of April 15 and confirmed the campers were demanding housing.

“We let them be until we found housing options…. We’ve confirmed that everyone down there was offered a bed last night,” Rehal said Thursday (April 22).

As for belongings, Rehal said, “our position has always been we don’t want to throw anything away. We give people the opportunity to gather their belongings, we usually work with them.”

He said even once the items get back to the yard, they’re kept for a time, “just in case.”

COURT RULINGS CHANGE ‘DYNAMIC’

Bylaw attends the area daily, noted Rehal, and has always been of the position that people can’t be blocking sidewalks with tents or other belongings but admitted the “dynamic” has changed recently following two court rulings.

Last October, the B.C. Supreme Court overruled Abbotsford bylaws that prohibited homeless people from setting up shelters (tents) and sleeping in city parks.

Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson found that not allowing homeless to sleep in parks constitutes a violation of Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which ensures the right to security of the person.

He said it would be reasonable to allow “overnight shelters to be erected in public spaces between 7 p.m. and 9 a.m. the following day.”

Then, in early April, Hinkson refused to grant the province’s request to order the estimated 100 homeless campers to take down their tent city on the grounds of Victoria’s courthouse.

Rehal said when there’s a housing demand, the city must make sure options are available.

Back on 135A Street this week, the homeless are getting organized. They, too, are paying attention to the recent court rulings.

Wanda said she’s in touch with people who aided the homeless in their successful court battles. She also has people hunting for provincial land that would accommodate a tent city.

“The mats are not a solution. I still have nowhere to store my stuff. I still have nowhere to go. My boyfriend didn’t get a mat for the last two nights. It’s so frustrating.”

Wanda stressed she wants to be off the streets and in a home of her own.

“But try to find something in Surrey. There’s got to be something done about the cost of rents, or welfare has got to go up. Everybody is just one pay cheque away from being where we are right now,” she said.

Meanwhile, blocks away, Anna Kowalewski lives in an apartment.

She sleeps in a storage closet.

“There’s three of us,” she said of her roommates, who share a two-bedroom unit. “They took the two bedrooms and because of a medical condition I offered to take the closet. I get migraines, so it blocks out a lot of the sun.”

It’s all she can afford on disability, she said, which allows her $375 a month for rent.

ACORN Canada held a rally last week calling for tougher bylaws to hold Surrey slumlords accountable, and more affordable housing.

Kowalewski has watched as new developments pop up all around her, but it’s not housing she can afford.

“These new complexes, while they’re amazing and beautiful and make the city brighter, they don’t help people like me…. I think Surrey needs to recognize that we have the fastest growing population in B.C. mainly due to other people in other parts of the Lower Mainland moving here because it’s so cheap. But it shouldn’t mean people are pushed out like gentrification.”

Kowalewski supports ACORN’s call for “inclusionary zoning” in Surrey, which would see a percentage of new developments include a portion of affordable housing.

It’s an idea the city council has floated before, and may or may not be part of the forthcoming Surrey Affordable Housing Strategy in the works. The documented is expected before city council sometime this year.

“We’re asking for about 30 per cent. As the city grows, the affordable housing stock should grow with the population. We think it would eliminate a lot of the petty crime we see around Surrey,” said Kowalewski. “And it would help people get off the streets.”

amy.reid@thenownewspaper.com

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