Driving down Surrey’s 135A street, also known as “The Strip,” the sidewalks are mostly clear.
Just over a year ago more than 80 tents lined the street but not a single tent remains.
Shortly after 10 a.m. on a sunny Tuesday morning, a handful of people are pushing shopping carts down the road. Several others sit on the pavement in front of the Gateway shelter.
It’s a dramatic difference to the scene there prior to June 21, 2018 when 160 people were moved into temporary modular housing.
But just down King George Boulevard hill, in a forested area near Bridgeview, is a tent city that its residents have dubbed the “Sanctuary.”
Inside the forest, the set-up mimicks an actual campsite, with pathways and bush separating various tents. Some spots have make-shift gates. There is a Narcan kit clearly marked and attached to a tree for overdoses, and at least two fire extinguishers are laid out in plain view, for use if needed.
The camp’s unofficial leader Wanda Stopa said the modular housing that opened last summer simply wasn’t enough.
And if you ask Stopa – who was among the first 135A Street residents to call for housing years ago – not much is changed in the past year since those sites have opened.
“Well, we’re not on the Strip no more. There’s still a homeless problem in Surrey. They only took 160 people out of roughly 1,000. Now everybody’s spread out. There’s more danger, there’s more deaths. You’re not as safe, that’s why we’ve started a community here, a group of us, because we’re safer in numbers than by yourself,” she says.
The 2017 Metro Vancouver Homeless Count found 602 homeless people in Surrey, a 49 per cent increase from the previous count in 2014 that found 403 people, although these counts are widely recognized as undercounts.
The group of the campers at the “Sanctuary” tell the Now-Leader they’re digging in their heels and won’t be leaving if the city tries to remove them.
“We are standing our ground against bylaws because they want to remove us and place us nowhere. There’s nowhere for us to go,” Stopa says while giving the Now-Leader a tour of one portion of the camp that she estimates has about 50 people. “We come here because we’re out of the public eye. People don’t have to look at us and see us, even thought there’s nothing wrong with us. We’re human.”
She added: “You’re going to have to arrest me to get me out of here.”
The campers set up a press conference on Tuesday morning, complete with a “Fight 4 Homes” banner, and various other signs.
“Homelessness is not a crime,” one placard reads. Others say “End war on the poor” and “Homes not shelters.”
“We’re fighting for homes, not shelters or modulars, but real homes,” says Stopa, noting shelters have been unsafe for some women and others involve a “lottery” system in order to hopefully gain entry.
“We deserve homes, we need affordable housing in Surrey. Something’s got to be done,” says Stopa.
Stopa first spoke with the Now-Leader in 2016, calling for housing for the homeless along 135A Street. She later served time in jail after being convicted of possession of a controlled substance for the purpose of trafficking and was released last June.
She says she was released to the streets “with just the clothes on her back” and has cleaned up her act, searching for housing since then, to no avail.
Kim Marosevich, Surrey’s bylaw services manager, says the city became aware of the tent city at this location about “10 days ago.”
Since then, she said there have been patrols of the area daily, which is partly city-owned.
“We’re continuing to monitor the situation. And the bulk of it is co-ordinating with partner agencies to try and figure out what alternative housing exists, then connecting people with alternative options. That’s the one side. The other side is this not permitted use. Tents and makeshift shelters are not permitted on city land, parks or greenspaces. Then there’s some concern about fire, and those safety risks, including propane use in a public space.”
Marosevich acknowledged it’s a “complex” situation and the city is doing its best to “balance” the needs.
“It’s definitely something where we rely very much on partner agencies, so BC Housing and Lookout (Housing and Health Society),” which runs Surrey’s modular complexes as well as some shelters.
“There’s development of additional housing coming on board this year and moving forward,” said Marosevich, referring to 250 units of permanent transitional housing the provincial government has committed to constructing, but not all of the sites have yet been identified. A transitional housing facility has also been approved near Green Timbers Forest, which is expected to break ground soon, and is set to have 99 units of transitional housing and 31 emergency shelter beds.
“So there’s this moving piece of who the population is in facilities, and who is moving where. And what kind of housing people need after doing an assessment, and where they have the best opportunity to be successful. All of that is happening on one side of the road, then us having the regulatory need to make sure our public spaces are managed in a safe way.”
What is the city’s plan if campers refuse to leave?
“It will depend on how much traction we get from the people staying there and what kind of connection we get with housing providers,” she said. “And on the flip side, we have to look at any behaviour we see as a risk. Look at the encampment and looking at what is happening there, and if there is any increase in volatility of use of the space, any increasing risk of fire, etc.”
Surrey RCMP Sergeant Trevor Dinwoodie, in charge of the Police Mental Health Outreach Team, said his team has been visiting the site weekly for months.
“They’ve never been an issue,” he said. “My team’s been down there multiple times to offer support. We’ve taken support workers from Surrey Urban Mission and Lookout down there.”
The PMHOT was established this past March – an amalgamation of the Surrey Outreach Team with the Police Mental Health Intervention Unit – after it was recognized that homeless people were more spread out throughout the city.
“The vast majority just want somebody actually looking out for them, to take that necessary step to assist them,” he said of those he encounters. “Everyone has a story. Once you listen to them, they realize you’re just another human being.”
But it’s been tough when that next step isn’t easy to obtain.
“If there was one thing I could change tomorrow, it would be how many shelter or modular spaces we have available. Finding somebody a home, giving them proper access to a washroom and food, that’s just the first step in being able to deal with complex medical and addiction issues. We don’t have enough spaces. It’s very sad.”
Back up the road, at 108th Avenue and King George Boulevard, Surrey Urban Mission Society’s 50-bed shelter is full every night.
“We could easily move up to 90 and we’d still be full,” said Michael Musgrove, the mission’s executive director. “We’re busier than ever, and looking for more space.”
“Plus there’s another 120 shelter beds in the area, and they’re full too. So there’s 150-plus shelter beds in Whalley that are full every night. When I came in this morning there were five people sleeping near us,” he told the Now-Leader last week.
Musgrove said some that obtained housing in the 160 modular units “seem healthier.”
“We see them less here,” he said. “I just saw a guy today that got into the housing and everyday he was here before. Really swollen hand, sometimes no shoes, sometimes quite out of it. Now his hair’s done, he looks showered, and his face isn’t as red. So we see those things happening. My concern is that we think we’ve accomplished something here. We did. We cleared 135A but we’ve still got a ways to go.”
He worries without continued progress, “we’ll end up with the Strip all over again.”
The operators of the modular housing agree that the momentum needs to continue to ensure the situation doesn’t end up back at square one. That momentum means the creation of the 250 permanent transitional housing units, promised by the province, to replace the 160 temporary units.
“There was a shift for our outreach teams, when we had the tent city open (on 135A Street), the outreach teams would walk out of their office and every one of their clients was in one block. Now they’re spread out again, so that’s what you’re seeing in Surrey, is more camps that are spread out, smaller camps,” says Bailey Mumford, director of housing for Lookout Housing and Health Society.
Mumford said a few people from the modulars have moved into market housing, but not many.
“There’s a bit of a stop gap at the end. What I say about all shelters in Vancouver right now is there’s sort of this mushroom that’s building, where there’s people entering those services and there’s not enough resources to leave the services at the moment,” he explains during a tour of the Nancy Gerard modular site, on the east side of King George Boulevard at roughly 106th Avenue.
There, residents and staff have set up gardens in the back, where vegetables are grown in a community garden. The garden boxes were built by those residing in the nearby Gateway shelter as part of a social enterprise initiative that invovles the building of furniture, and residents being paid for their work.
The gardening, said Mumford, has helped many residents who have mental health issues, helping to calm those who are high strung, or bring those who can be recluse out of their rooms.
Sadly, Mumford said, there have been deaths in the modular units.
“There are people who aren’t here that were here when the mods opened…. We have had deaths in the building. It re-opens this old trauma. So people go right back to what they had on the Strip.”
Despite that trauma and grief, Mumford said he’s proud of the work that’s been done, and the lives that have been changed inside the buildings so far.
“It’s really exciting when you see someone come in and they say they’ve got a job, or got their taxes taken care of. People getting diagnoses, people getting onto medications, and seeing their whole world change. Seeing them come to a place where we can work with them, where we can engage them,” he said. “It’s super exciting when we see people you literally thought were going to die on the Strip, and they’re here and they’re thriving and doing well. I’m getting goosebumps now. It’s really exciting.”
Businesses in the area have mixed reviews of the modular units.
Mike Nielsen who owns and operates Sprite Multimedia a few blocks away from one of the modular sites says the community is “definitely in a better position than we were last year.”
“Dry shelter changes peoples’ lives. I’ve talked to one of the guys, Peter, in the site beside the post office (on King George Boulevard). There’s a guy who had no hope, now he’s being positive and got some part-time work. If that hadn’t happened he’d still be in a tent on 135A. There’s somebody’s life we’ve changed as a community,” he said.
Nielsen says he sees less drug use and alcohol in the area, and fewer people loitering.
“It still happens, it’s not perfect yet, but I’m going to say in my opinion it’s twice as good as it was a year ago.”
But Elfie Stumpf, who works much closer to one of the modular sites, shares a very different perspective.
“It’s worse, a lot worse,” said Stumpf, who has worked at Whalley Optical for more than 30 years.
Stumpf said she’s witnessed a sharp increase in thefts from her store, and also in public drug dealing and drug use.
“I’ve had someone with a needle stuck in their arm right at the doorway right while I’m with a customer,” she said, noting some local stores have boosted security.
Stumpf guessed that she emails the city once a week, and has complained to the modular housing operators as well as police, but feels her complaints are falling on deaf ears.
She wants to see modular housing moved to an area where it doesn’t negatively impact residential or businesses.
“I know Cloverdale doesn’t want them. Maple Ridge doesn’t want them, and I know why. They’ve seen how it affects other areas,” Stumpf said.
“We need permanent housing where people receive the medications they need, get off of drugs, and not have them in the area where they’re tempted by drugs. A lot of these people are mentally ill and not on medication and nobody is monitoring them.
“It’s a Band-Aid. It’s not helping.”