Second Surrey tent city shut down in two months

WHALLEY — For the second time in two months, a homeless camp has been cleared out of Whalley.

First, a long-standing tent city in the heart of Whalley was dismantled on the morning of Dec. 3. Squatters packed up their 20 or so tents and belongings and moved off the site.

The tents were spread amongst four lots, three that are privately owned and one that belongs to the city.

But it didn’t take long for tents to pop up elsewhere in the community.

On Monday, officials were across from the Gateway Shelter and the Front Room dismantling another group of tents that had set up along the sidewalk.

Surrey’s bylaw enforcement manager Jas Rehal said the city has been receiving an increasing number of complaints about tents in the area.  

“It started off with a few small tents,” he explained. “The camps were getting bigger and bigger.”

Rehal said the city intends to “keep a real close eye” on the situation.

“We’re not going to let it get to the point it was at right now,” he said Tuesday. “We’re going to be on top of it.”

Rehal said the city won’t be chasing the tents around but rather, will continue to partner with outreach agencies in an effort to permanently get people off the streets.

On both occasions, Feb. 2 and Dec. 3, the city partnered with Lookout Emergency Aid Society in order to provide support and shelter for those in the camps.

Shayne Williams, executive director of Lookout, said both days went well in terms of offering help to those in need.

“We’ve done a whole clean-up along 135A Street in conjunction with the RCMP and certainly the City of Surrey and bylaws have been very helpful. It’s been very successful,” he said.

“Monday there were 13 people who came off the streets: nine of which came into the shelter system, three went directly into housing and one went into drug and alcohol detox.”

Lookout recently merged with Keys: Housing and Health Solutions Society, giving the organization the ability to house people through its entire network of facilities in the Lower Mainland.

“Lookout has opened up opportunities for people to go to other communities, if they had a connection with that community. It’s a regional strategy to a local problem,” Williams explained. “We’ve seen real positive outcomes for a population that doesn’t want to be on the street but there’s just not enough room in our (Surrey) shelter.”

But it’s been a challenging few months, he noted.

“We’re seeing an influx of people coming to our great city and we’re seeing more people on the street, particularly on 135A Street. So we’ve had a really challenging time this winter meeting the needs of the most vulnerable folks, particularly without a winter shelter.”

Coun. Judy Villeneuve, president of Surrey Homelessness and Housing Society, said the city is doing all it can with the limited resources it has.

“We’re trying to ensure we close that revolving door so that people have a good option to get a roof over their head. Sometimes it takes building up a little trust because these are some of the hardest to house people, because they often have other health problems. We are doing out best,” Villeneuve said.

“And we’re doing all we can to get that new shelter built.”

The City of Surrey has approved a location for a new purpose-built homeless shelter near Surrey Memorial Hospital. Council gave the site, at 9671/9677/9687 137th St., the green light on Dec. 15, 2014.

The location went to public hearing last summer and was met with some opposition. It was tabled and council directed staff to look at other locations. But last December, council gave third reading to rezone the site.

Villeneuve expects there to be meetings with BC Housing this month to move the project ahead.

Meanwhile, locals continue to struggle with the effects.

Tony Moore, president of the Whalley Legion, said the issue has been significant for five or six years, but it’s gotten worse.

“It’s nothing new. The tents were the new thing. We never used to have people defecating on our front door. They just do blatant things now.”

Moore saw the problem worsen when the tent city at Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park was shut down.

“When that shut down it seemed like a group of tent people moved into Whalley here.”

The legion has been outspoken about its struggles in recent months, which include finding feces on its front doorstep, a 93-year-old veteran being offered sexual favours in exchange for money and cars being broken into.

In the last week or so, Moore said someone dug through the wall of the building and stole computers, costing the organization some $8,000.

“Now we tend to walk our people out, some of the older people, we look after them. These are World War Two veterans, these people still do poppies for us,” Moore said.

The legion has also opted to hire extra security as a result.

Moore would like to see the city put up CCTV cameras or fencing around the legion’s back stairwell to deter people from hanging around. The legion is giving out $100,000 in donations to charities next month. Without help, he worries the legion will see a decline in visitors and members, and thus, a loss of donations that help the community.

While the legion continues to struggle with these issues, Moore said he loves the community.

“Whalley’s not a bad place, we just have a bad rap. I’m proud to say I come from Whalley. I have great neighbours, and we have great people here. When it comes to poppy time, this legion did about $120,000 in poppy donations last year. The only place that did more than us was the Okanagan,” he said.

“That’s how great the people of Whalley are. They donate from the heart, yet we have to put up with some of this stuff.… It all stems back to the city. They have to do something about the homeless.”

– With files from Christopher Poon