SURREY — I spent my morning walking the Whalley “Strip” last Friday, as I’ve done many times. There was an eerie calm that day.
Several tents were set up along 135A Street and a few people were wandering about, but far fewer than normal.
I was there because I had heard from four different frontline workers in the past two weeks (all off the record out of fear of what will happen if they put their name to their concerns) about a crackdown on the area’s homeless.
I’m sure there are many who are patting themselves on the back right now. The problem’s being dealt with, right? Fewer people seem to be down there during daylight hours. Success! But is it? Far from it.
And here’s why.
One of the reasons so many congregate on 135A Street is because the services are there. Off the strip? Where are they going? Likely loitering around the area – which won’t help anyone – or perhaps hiding out of sight. If they overdose in a bush somewhere, who’s going to hit them with an overdose-reversing drug that’s being used daily on the strip? Shelter staff will be too far away.
So sure, City of Surrey, give yourself a big pat on the back for cleaning up the strip, but I don’t think the kudos are deserved.
A real solution would be finding help for these people who are suffering from their mental illnesses and their addictions.
Instead, they’re being herded around like cattle. Out of sight, out of mind, right?
Obviously, the argument could be made that people are being housed and that’s why there are fewer people along the street, but I call foul on that one.
As Peter Fedos with Hyland House told me last month, there’s a lack of adequate housing. Combine that with an influx of Syrian refugees and the increase in homeless and, well, you can do the math.
I called Nightshift Street Ministries founder MaryAnne Connor to get her take on the situation. It was uncanny. She used the exact words and phrases I had already used when writing this column.
“You know how they prod cattle? That’s what it feels like,” she said, adding she can see what goes on through a glazed window in her office. “I’ve watched them, the officers, they’re not bad guys either. They’re just doing their job.”
The recent crackdown, which she calls a “sweep,” is not a solution, she added. People just circle back.
“They move like nomads,” Connor said. “These are not bad people. There’s a few bad apples, like there is everywhere, but this just saddens me because this is not the solution. They’re people and to hear that their personal belongings are being thrown into dumpsters…” she said, her voice trailing off.
“I watched one of the officers throw a teddy bear away. A teddy bear. I don’t know if that was their kid’s teddy bear or the woman’s teddy bear, but that contrast was quite something.”
Asked if the city is making headway in dealing with the issue, she replied, “How do you measure success in that one? Where are they going? They’re moving into woods and backyards, and they’re going somewhere. They might move down to Newton and come back, we’re really displacing the problem.”
It’s a cycle she’s watched happen year after year after year in Whalley.
“The same complaints. The same pushback,” she said. “And what’s the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
Meanwhile, the feds paid almost $2 million this year to the Sheraton Guildford Vancouver Hotel to provide “assistance to immigrants and refugees.”
So let me get this straight: We can spend $2 million to help refugees during their transition, but we treat our homeless like cattle? I don’t see anyone stepping up to pay their hotel tab while they wait for housing.
By the way, I can’t help but wonder what the city spends on police and bylaw staff out there every morning? Could those costs cover such a bill for the city’s homeless?
However, I must give credit where credit is due. The province has forked over about $1 million to keep Surrey’s winter shelter open all year. I’m just left wondering why the situation has gotten worse, not better.
“Someone once said society is judged by how we treat our weakest members,” said Connor. “I saw an older woman on the street yesterday morning being pushed along. How strong is she? I saw the pain and grief on her face. I’m really sad. Just really, really sad. There’s got to be another way.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself.
I’m willing to bet some disagree with me – and Connor – when it comes to the issue.
Fair enough. Let’s hear your suggestions. Let’s brainstorm. Heck, let’s debate.
Email me. Email city hall. Email RCMP. Just keep the conversation going.
Whether you want cleaner streets, a safer neighbourhood or healthier residents, we all have the same goal. The only thing to talk about is how to get there.
Now staff writer Amy Reid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org