FOCUS: Whalley residents sick of ‘disgusting’ and ‘hazardous’ activity after spike in homeless

Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner says the 'escalating' issue is getting attention seven days a week, but it’s a tough one to solve.

Philippa Powers

Philippa Powers

SURREY — Some Whalley residents on University Drive are so fed up with a spike in homelessness that they’re considering dropping a bin of used needles at the steps of Surrey City Hall.

The buildings are not even two blocks apart.

“I’ve been thinking of going around with a plastic bucket and going into city hall and saying, ‘There you go. Present,’” said Philippa Powers, longtime resident and Block Watch captain.

A group of residents of the Whalley Point condos on University Drive gathered Monday to tell the Now about their recent troubles. Though they acknowledge their area has always struggled with homelessness, all agreed they’d seen a huge spike in “undesirable activity” this summer.

Undesirable is putting it lightly, said Powers. Fecal matter on the property. Used needles with blood still in them left all around the building. Prostitutes changing in their gazebo. People sneaking in and using drugs in the stairwells.

“Forget disgusting, we’re talking health hazard,” Powers said, adding she worries about the children.

“We have fields here where kids play soccer… right next to it we have a skate park which is frequented by teens. Across from that we have a child’s playground for the little kids at the ball park. They are dropping needles everywhere. It’s a matter of time before someone gets pricked.”

And Powers noted Lookout Emergency Aid Society shut down their needle recovery program this month due to a funding loss, so things will only get worse.

Last Friday, Powers said she called Surrey’s bylaw department after tents popped up. They were dismantled but by the afternoon they’d returned. She called again and it was dismantled a second time. Then again Saturday morning. “They just come back,” Powers said.

Resident Susan Shaver says she’s been calling Surrey’s bylaw department almost daily since the beginning of August and is fed up.

“City hall was just built in the last couple years,” said Shaver. “I was so hopeful that things would get better. But things are much worse.”

Dana Peters, caretaker for the Whalley Point buildings, says owners are coming to her asking why she can’t solve the problems.

“There’s only so much we can do,” Peters said. “We phone bylaws. We phone police. It’s getting to the point where they’re not quite rude to us, but they’re tired of us calling.”

It’s Peters’ job to pick up the feces and needles on the property.

“I’ve been here for 18 years and this has been going on for the 18 years, but now it is bad,” said Peters. “We didn’t have fecal matter to pick up, we didn’t have nearly as many needles. Now it’s right on our property, right in our staircases.”

In April, Surrey’s bylaw department recognized an increase in homelessness on 135A Street. Campers were demanding housing.

Peter Fedos with Hyland House helped co-ordinate emergency bed response after the increase that he said “happened so fast” all involved were “scrambling.”

Residents of the Whalley Point buildings say it was shortly after that the trouble began.

Block Watch co-captain Wayne Pickerell (pictured with Powers) said he’s fed up with Surrey RCMP’s response.

“Every time we call the police they say, ‘What do you want us to do about it?’” Pickerell told the Now. “Whatever happened to drunk in public?” he questioned, pointing to incidents where people were “tweaking” out or shooting up in stairwells and were simply asked to move along. “What’s the next step if police won’t do anything? Vigilantism?” said Pickerell. “We don’t want to go that route but if they don’t do anything, something is going to happen.”

Surrey RCMP Corporal Scotty Schumann said while he couldn’t speak to specific incidents, people can be arrested for committing any type of offence but that involves an investigator collecting evidence and considering many other things, such as if there’s a risk to the public.

“So there’s many things we consider before making an arrest.

“What is important, though, is that when people see a crime they report it,” Schumann added. “No crime is too small.”

He noted it directs enforcement activities.

Despite residents’ concerns, Schumann said violent crime has gone down in that area in the first two quarters of the year compared to last, and only 29 more residential break-and-enters were reported in that time.

Schumann encouraged residents with ongoing nuisance activity in their area to visit their local detachment. There, he said, are officers whose job it is to deal with these ongoing complaints. He also said local safety forums are important to attend.

As for the Whalley area and how the district’s Mounties are tackling the issues of homelessness and addiction, Schumann said RCMP are working more with other partners than they have in the past.

“Bylaws, city engineers transit police, all these people, we’re working together to try to tackle the enforcement side of it. We’re also dealing with other agencies around health and addiction. Homelessness is not something we can arrest our way out of.”

He pointed to RCMP’s SMART (Surrey Mobilization and Resiliency Table) program that began last November.

As of last April, it had helped 54 at-risk people better their lives and was on track to help 120 by the one year mark. SMART sees police team up with provincial, city and social agencies to help those involved in non-criminal calls that make up the majority of police incidents. When the SMART group deems someone at “elevated risk” a response intervention plan begins within 24 to 48 hours. It’s about prevention, police say, seeing as over 60 per cent of Surrey RCMP’s average 180,000 calls a year deal with social issues such as addiction, homelessness and mental health.

Schumann, who used to walk the beat on 135A Street about a decade ago, visited it two weeks ago.

“The same problems are there,” he acknowledged, “But we’re trying to deal with them in slightly different ways now. Before we were more on the enforcement side of it and now we’re using a lot more partnerships to deal with it.”

Schumann said it’s an “odd” area.

“You have all this growth and young people and young families moving into the area. And you still have this there. And they’re right at each others’ doorsteps. If you go down to the Downtown East Side it’s not like that…. I don’t expect to see any new highrises going up there anytime soon. But we have so much growth in this area. The area is transitioning.”

City hall is well aware of the issues, said Surrey’s bylaw enforcement manager Jas Rehal.

“We’re definitely out there everyday,” he told the Now. “It’s an unfortunate situation with how many people are in the area. We’re working hard to move people along and connect them with services.

“The numbers right now are increasing,” Rehal continued, “so it’s a tough situation, it’s a sensitive situation for sure. We have dedicated resources in that area seven days a week, we’re always reallocating resources from other parts of the city. We’re doing the best we can to keep things safe.”

Mayor Linda Hepner (pictured on her office balcony) says the issue hasn’t been an easy one to solve, and that Surrey isn’t alone.

“If there was a magic solution I would exercise it…. We can’t go in and take down the tents — we can only move them along,” she explained. “(The city is) managing it every single day. But it’s not a longterm solution. It requires a more significant strategy around the public health and mental health elements of it, and it requires not just local government but all levels of government to assist.”

Hepner noted Fraser Health is looking at ways to combat the fentanyl public health crisis.

“A whole lot of that is looking at a continuum of care in our city and whether or not consumption services plays a part in that continuum,” said the mayor. “We know it does, but if that is part of a Surrey solution, I’m hearing from both the businesses in the area and the people that we don’t want to condemn that place to being Surrey’s Downtown East Side… because it’s in the core of the city. But the strategies are going to take longer than overnight.”

The city is considering another shelter in the area, but Hepner said she’s getting mixed messages.

Residents want the shelter to get people off the streets, but businesses don’t want services concentrated in the area, she said.

“It’s a double-edged sword and we’re trying to cautiously navigate that,” Hepner added.

Longer-term, the city has a transitional housing project near Green Timbers forest, but she acknowledged that’s no comfort to these residents.

“So there are a lot of elements in play but we’re still seeing tents going up each day right now,” said Hepner. “It’s a big social problem. I think social disruption is one of the more significant issues facing that area.

“There are always challenges in a growing city,” she added, “but I certainly share their frustration because I think things have escalated over the past number of months. We saw a shift. We’re well aware of that shift and we’re doing everything we can to develop the strategies.”