SURREY — An extensive new survey of businesses in the city core suggests more than ever are feeling unsafe.
“It’s for a variety of reasons,” said summer intern Alex Dibnah, who for the past three years has produced and analyzed the annual surveys.
“A lot of it is social disorder based, not necessarily full crimes, but the type of thing you see on the streets that make you feel unsafe – so discarded needles, people loitering, drug use,” said Dibnah. “We’re not entirely sure if that is going up or if it’s just their perceptions. But regardless of whether or not it’s happening, if that’s their perception, that’s their reality.”
Every year since 2006, the Downtown Surrey BIA safety interns survey local ground-level businesses about their experiences with safety.
The 62-page Safety Audit tracks changes in businesses’ perception of safety in their area, documents concerns and gathers recommendations for improving the safety of Downtown Surrey.
This year, 205 businesses completed the survey and it uncovered a “significant sense of pessimism on the part of businesses as compared to last year,” according to the report.
A total of 29 per cent of respondents felt the area had become less safe (29 per cent) – the most ever in the audit’s history.
"The amount of respondents who feel more or the same level of safety has been falling since 2013, while increasing numbers of businesses have been feeling less safe," the report reveals.
And this year also marked the lowest ever percentage of respondents who felt the reputation of Downtown Surrey had improved (35.6 per cent).
Businesses’ top four concerns this year were drug users (73.7 per cent), theft (62.9 per cent), drug dealing (59.5 per cent) and discarded needles (58.5 per cent).
Social services were a controversial topic. When asked how social services in the area made them feel, most reported feeling neutral (52.7 per cent), while about 35 per cent felt less safe and noted that they attract “unsavoury people to the area” and “served as a magnet for disorder, bringing in crime.”
The report notes that many members were not “opposed to social services in principle, but feel that there are simply too many clustered together in too small an area.”
The most common and frequent crime reported was theft (47.8 per cent) and vandalism/graffiti (37.6 per cent).
But the survey didn’t just look at concerns, it also asked how to make things better. The top four themes revolved around police presence, increasing support for vulnerable individuals, enhancing security, as well as community responsibility.
Forty-five per cent of respondents wanted to see more police and security, when asked how the area’s safety could be improved, specifically foot and bike patrols.
“Get out of the car; sitting here does nothing,” wrote one respondent.
Businesses also want to see greater responsibility and proactive engagement from the RCMP. Many were aware of the high-demand nature of policing in Surrey but were frustrated that, “the high call volume in this city resulted in officer apathy and failure to respond to calls.”
One unnamed respondent said, “things happen here so often that they are seeing it as routine and feeling apathy. (They’re) only focusing on the big stuff and allowing the small things to slide by.”
As a result, many businesses will not report smaller crimes to police because they feel the police “will not and cannot do anything about it.” But, noted Dibnah, “they were understanding of the difficulties faced by police – the high call volume and the amount of work they have.”
Businesses would also like to see more support for vulnerable individuals.
“It wasn’t just housing or mental health or health in general, but all of these things coming together,” said Dibnah. “They’re not just saying move people along, they’re saying help people.”
Businesses would also like to see more lighting and security features such as CCTV cameras.
“And more people are saying we need to invest in our own security, report more and work with police more,” said Dibnah. “They’re realizing it’s not just one group that can make a difference here.”
The report recommendations include advocating for an RCMP “business liaison team” to do foot and bike patrols; working on the discarded needle issue and to work on a campaign to promote positive stories of the area.
Surrey Councillor Barbara Steele said she’s “encouraged” by some of the report, noting that when you add up the percentage of businesses who felt either “about as safe as last year” (52.2 per cent) and “more safe” (18.5 per cent), that comes out to about 71 per cent.
“That’s an indication that we are doing some things right,” said Steele, who lives in the area.
The city has stepped up resources to help the homeless, with city staff dedicated to 135A Street seven days a week, Steele noted, and has increased the police presence.
Steele said the area is a “work in progress.”
“You look at any city across Canada or the U.S. and they all have a pocket somewhere that causes grief. Grief for people that are there and grief for people around it. I think we’re working well to recognize that and to deal with it. I think the BIA is getting good co-operation.
“So there are a lot of positive things coming. The more it builds up the better it will be.”