HOMELESSNESS: Lawyer says Surrey bylaw officers may be violating constitutional rights in recent crackdown in Whalley that was caught on secret video by former city employee
WHALLEY — A lawyer says a secretly recorded video that shows a homeless woman begging Surrey bylaw officers not to toss her belongings in the garbage could show a violation of constitutional rights.
“It’s deeply disturbing,” said DJ Larkin with Pivot Legal Society, a human rights advocacy group in Vancouver.
“We need municipalities to recognize that they have human rights obligations and that those apply to their day-to-day activities, including bylaw enforcement. And that they have an obligation to be acting in keeping with the constitution. I have serious concerns that these bylaw officers are not doing that.”
The 20-minute cell phone video was shot by a former City of Surrey employee. He provided a copy of the video to the Now last week in the midst of a crackdown to deal with an increase in homelessness along Whalley’s 135A Street.
Jordan, who asked that his last name be withheld, shot the video last November, six months before he was fired.
In it, Jordan refuses to throw away a homeless woman’s belongings and repeatedly tells other city staff that to do so would be in violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The woman is heard crying, begging to get her belongings back. A bylaw officer replies that it’s garbage.
“Leave my suitcase,” she can be heard yelling. “I need my stuff.”
All the while Jordan’s cell phone is recording from his shirt’s breast pocket while he works, putting garbage into a black bag.
“I’m not being very unco-operative, my god, you threw away my suitcase and my medications, for god’s sakes. That’s the first thing you threw away,” she cries.
“No it wasn’t,” a bylaw officer replies.
“Are you guys happy working for him?” she asks Jordan of one of the bylaw officers.
“I’m not,” Jordan replies. “What I’m here for is to take away garbage. Any garbage I’ll take.”
He adds: “Thank you for keeping it tidy.”
STORY CONTINUES BELOW
Larkin said the footage was “devastating” to watch.
“Clearly many of the items being taken are the very items that people use to survive. It’s bedding, clothing, tarps, essential medications. You can hear the woman saying, ‘my medication is in there,’” said Larkin. “This is a story I’ve heard over and over again. We’ve heard it from doctors, we’ve heard it from street nurses, you name it. People have essential medication taken away from them. It’s a huge impediment to their safety and well-being.”
While Larkin characterized the actions as “discriminatory” because they’re targeting people with no access to indoor space, she explained that the Human Rights Code does not protect people in B.C. on the basis of social status.
“That failure really does empower managers and employees like the ones shown in this video, to target homeless people in a way that’s causing them harm. In addition, her social status, her marginalization, makes it very hard for her to hold someone accountable. So we shouldn’t be waiting for people to lodge individual complaints. We need to be looking at systemic change from a government perspective to stop practices like this.”
However, even if people aren’t protected under the Human Rights Code, they may be covered under the constitution, Larkin explained.
“I have very serious concerns that these actions are not constitutional. These practices target people in a discriminatory way and they put lives and safety at risk because they’re taking away basic emergency essential equipment and belongings and all of that risks violating the Charter of Rights and Freedoms for people who live on our streets.”
Larkin said it was hard to watch as everything the woman owns was being thrown out in front of her eyes. She noted homelessness is increasing across B.C. because of the province’s failures in social housing and income assistance.
“As cities are left to manage these issues, they’re looking to redevelop, to increase commercial enterprise and what ends up happening is people are being policed rather than being respected,” Larkin said.
“We absolutely need to take a human rights view to this because otherwise this stuff is going to keep happening. Peoples’ homes are being thrown out.”
Larkin said municipal governments need to start treating people with dignity.
“I’m upset at what’s happened to that woman and I can completely understand why that individual felt uncomfortable in his job.”
In an exclusive interview with the Now, Jordan said when he took a job with the City of Surrey as a labourer, he had no idea he would be tasked with throwing out the belongings of the homeless.
Jordan said this is “essentially what happens every day.”
And it started to take a toll.
(PHOTO: City staff doing their daily sweep of 135A Street earlier this year.)
“I don’t enjoy seeing people screaming about their stuff,” he told the Now. “I was thinking about the morality of my work day. I was going home and bawling my eyes out. It affects you.”
Jordan says the city disposes of items immediately, despite the city’s claims that the belongings taken from the homeless are kept for 14 days before being taken to the dump.
He says he felt compelled to shoot the video because a “moral line” had been crossed.
“I thought it was high time to say, ‘Guys, I’m not comfortable with the situation,’” he said. “I was going against my character so I spoke up.
“It’s about time people started seeing what’s happening.”
Jordan said he hopes the city changes their direction.
“It’s just about cleaning up the area and it’s bullying.”
Jas Rehal, Surrey’s bylaw manager, said the video doesn’t tell the whole story.
“What’s not shown in the video is that once the area’s cleaned up, the officers worked with the individual in getting her stuff back,” said Rehal. “We understand peoples’ rights.”
He said the woman generates a “truckload of garbage a week.”
Rehal noted the bylaw department has increased its presence in the Whalley area due to an increase of homelessness but does its best to balance the needs of those on the street with keeping the area clean.
He said the city tries to offer outreach first but there “becomes a point in time where we have to clean up the property.”
As for Jordan’s claims that the city dumps items immediately, Rehal said that is not always the case.
“It depends what it is,” Rehal said. “If there’s a suitcase, clothes, that type of stuff, that’s not going.”
‘IT BREAKS MY HEART’
The Now showed Surrey Councillor Vera LeFranc the video on Tuesday morning. She said while she wouldn’t comment on any Human Resources issues, nothing in the video was “unexpected.”
LeFranc said staff are following protocol in the video.
“They had an outreach worker there, police and bylaw,” she noted.
LeFranc said city council directs bylaw staff to act with “kindness and compassion” and always work with an outreach worker when moving people along.
“It’s just a very challenging environment. It’s really tough,” she said. “We have to remember, too, that we’re asking people who are not social service workers, who are not support workers who are not in the social service area to do what is essentially mental health and social service support work.
“And frankly, some are better at it than others.”
LeFranc said Surrey city council recently approved storage space for people’s belongings because it’s been an ongoing issue. She said that’s in the works.
“That storage will be connected to Gateway shelter,” said LeFranc. “Even though we might not think these belongings are important, the people that actually own them, those are their worldly items. They should be treated with respect…. That’s one step that we’re taking and we hope to be taking further steps in getting more shelter beds and getting supportive and low-barrier housing.”
As for the woman shown in the video, LeFranc said, “It breaks my heart that these are the life experiences that people are having.
“It’s obvious to me that we’re not meeting her needs in some way. We have to push harder. We need more shelter beds in Surrey. We need more housing.”