SURREY — Newton BIA’s first homeless count has found 55 people living on the streets in the town centre alone.
They were identified over a three-day count this summer, said director Philip Aguirre.
“We need advocacy and you can’t have advocacy without real measurement,” Aguirre told the Now, noting Surrey’s last homeless count of 403 in 2014 didn’t include a single person in Newton.
“So I couldn’t use the previous count because it wasn’t accurate for Newton.”
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The BIA did the count with the commissionaires they hire to do safety patrols in the area because they are familiar with many of the area’s homeless.
The count focused on the Newton Town Centre core and some surrounding parks such as Unwin and Frank Hurt.
About half of the 55 people identified as homeless filled out a survey, explained Aguirre.
“The majority of them were living in Newton,” he said.
“One of the things I thought was interesting is that a lot of our males were older. We didn’t have a large youth population of homeless. There were a few that were younger. The female gender, though, was definitely younger. And we didn’t have many aboriginal people, that wasn’t a theme at all.”
The most common answer to why Newton’s homeless remained on the street was substance abuse, said Aguirre.
“So addiction problems, job loss due to addiction,” he revealed. “Over 95 per cent of those surveyed identified as being addicted…. Some people would shoot up right in front of us as we were talking to them. The amount of needles that they had was high.
“They used anything and everything,” he continued.
“From heroin, speed, crack, downers, uppers, marijuana, whatever was available. And they knew about Quibble Creek, the needle exchange (in Whalley), the Front Room. Not many of them use Hyland House because it’s a clean shelter and you can’t use there.
“We have no low-barrier shelter in Newton,” he added.
Doing the count was crucial, said Aguirre, because he wants more resources for the homeless in Newton and with a provincial election about to get underway, there’s no time like the present.
Newton’s population (nearly 140,000 people according to the City of Surrey, about 3,000 of which in the town centre core surveyed) accounts for more than 25 per cent of Surrey residents making it larger than Guildford and Fleetwood combined. Also, Aguirre added, Newton is larger than Kelowna.
Governments need to invest more in the area, he stressed.
“It’s been two years now that we’ve been at it at the BIA and we have a good amount of information now,” he said.
“Safety has never really been a normal pillar for a BIA, however that’s why we were created – because of safety issues.”
He noted improvement in Newton’s Surrey RCMP crime statistics so far this year.
“Year to date, for district three, which is all of Newton, violent crime was down eight per cent,” said Aguirre. “Property crime was down five per cent, and total crime was down six per cent for Newton.
For Aguirre, the homeless count – and hopefully acquiring more governmental dollars to help those living on the street – is important in continuing that trend.
“It covers it all,” he stressed. “It’s why we have the Commissionaires, why we have meetings, why we do needle boxes, why we put in the dog park – because we have homeless. We work on election cycles and the provincial election is coming up and topics of provincial issues are homelessness, housing and safety… that’s our number one issue here in Newton. We want to ensure it’s a priority in the dialogue or the conversation or narrative of this election.”
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At the same time, the City of Surrey is nearing completion of its Public Safety Strategy, and Aguirre said “obviously Whalley and Newton need to be high priorities.”
Though Aguirre feels the area is becoming safer, he said their work is far from over.
“Perception and peoples’ feeling of the area is always going to be difficult to change,” he said. “It’s going to take a long time for peoples’ perception of Newton to improve. My tagline, of building community, and that’s how we’re going to do that, and we’re going to do that by providing a safe environment and confidence. Give residents confidence in the area.
“It all sounds negative,” he added, “however, we came from a negative period in Newton and we’ve been working with great organizations and great people to improve the area. We don’t have a safety audit that tells us peoples’ perceptions but when I talk to people, people are enthusiastic about the future that we’re going in the right direction. We’re going in the right direction, and that’s because we’re working hard.”
The Downtown Surrey BIA does a safety audit every year to gauge business perceptions in the area and Aguirre said the Newton BIA will follow suit.
But DSBIA CEO Elizabeth Model said they wouldn’t be following Newton’s lead and doing their own homeless count because one is already done.
“We already recognize there is a problem and are working with the city on solutions,” said Model.