The truth about Surrey homelessness one year after the clearing of the 135A Strip is that homeless people and their allies have nothing to celebrate
One year has passed since police, city workers, and social workers cleared nearly 100 tents off the long standing 135A Street “Surrey Strip.” On the anniversary of this mass displacement, the RCMP released a press statement and held an awards ceremony to recognize “partners involved in the 135A Street transition and stabilization.” Police, politicians, and services providers celebrated the fact that the Strip “remains free of tent encampments,” claiming that it is “now an area where the city’s most vulnerable can obtain support in a safe and healthy environment.”
On June 21, former residents of the Surrey Strip held a press conference to challenge this narrative and bust five of the worst myths and outright lies that have been circulating since the Strip was shut down one year ago. The biggest myth is that displacing the Strip has been an achievement for homeless people. “There’s still homelessness in Surrey, it hasn’t gone away like they claim,” according to Wanda. “The only difference is now we’re scattered and hidden. Nobody should have gotten any awards, nobody should be patting themselves on the back because they did nothing.”
Myth 1: Everyone who wanted a home got one
At the press conference, a reporter asked Alliance Against Displacement member Dave Diewert, “When the City and police moved everybody off the Strip last summer, they said everybody who wanted to get a home in modular or in a shelter got one. Are you telling us that’s not the case?” The small crowd that had gathered to watch couldn’t keep quiet. They shouted, “No way, not even close! That’s just not true!” Dave pointed to this crowd of homeless people and supportive housing residents and explained, “This is why we’re holding this press conference, because the voices of people on the ground never get heard.”
Fact: Closing the Strip displaced a thousand homeless people into shelters and the streets
The last official count found 600 homeless people in Surrey, but Wanda, a leader of the Surrey Strip community says that official count included only about half of those really on the street. “There were roughly 1,000 homeless people in Surrey when the Strip was closed,” she said. “Only 160 people got beds, and there are more and more people becoming homeless every day.” Former residents of the Strip who were not offered a place in modular housing get bounced from shelter to shelter, or they have nowhere to go. “They’re homeless, living in tents out in the bush somewhere, like me,” said Wanda.
Myth 2: Modular housing offers the “comfort and security of a home”
Mayor Doug McCallum described the modular housing that some residents of the Strip moved into as “meaningful housing,” and BC Minister of Housing Selina Robinson claimed, “160 people have the comfort and security of a home.” Residents disagree. “It’s not a home, it’s just the Strip with walls,” according to Bonnie, who moved into modular housing after the Strip was cleared. “We signed up for modular housing under duress, because we would have signed anything to get inside somewhere. We found out later it’s not covered by the Residential Tenancy Act.”
Fact: Modular housing is “not housing, it’s warehousing”
The legality of exempting modular housing residents from accessing tenant rights under the BC Residential Tenancy Act is ambiguous. But modular housing operators make residents sign “program agreements” in order to treat them as “program participants” (or as Shayne Williams, Executive Director of Lookout Society, which operates the Surrey modular housing, calls them, “guests”) – not tenants. “Staff enter your room anytime they want without warning,” said William Hadath, who lived on the Strip before moving into modular housing. “They can set arbitrary rules and punish you if you complain. If they decide you’re a trouble-maker, they can evict you,” said Bonnie.
The 160 modular housing units that politicians are celebrating as “homes” are really just tiny rooms in Atco trailers. “They are literally the size of a jail cell,” said William. However, living conditions on the Surrey Strip were so inhuman, and government neglect is so normalized, that homeless people are conditioned to expect they will be left to die in the streets. In this context, even the most minimal material improvement is exaggerated as a cause for celebration. The RCMP press release quotes an unnamed tenant praising the modular housing, “You can’t beat it. They give you a bed, food, laundry.” On the surface, these amenities may give modular housing the appearance of a home, or something close to it, but as William said, “It’s not housing, it’s warehousing.”
Myth 3: Police “outreach services” are a source of support for the homeless
The Surrey Outreach Team, comprised of 12 police and 4 bylaw officers, was established in 2016 to surveil and contain homeless people living on the Strip, and eventually, to disperse them. After the Strip was shut down, the Surrey Outreach Team and the Mental Health Unit were amalgamated into the new Police Mental Health Outreach Team, supposedly to provide “more comprehensive outreach services to Surrey’s vulnerable citizens.” The Executive Director of Lookout Society described this police outreach team as a “great source of support for guests who live in the modular housing and for people who live outdoors.”
Fact: Police harass the poor out of public spaces
For Surrey’s homeless community, the expansion of police “outreach services” means heightened police and bylaw harassment. “They’ve been harder on us, more forceful, always telling people to move along. If you just sit down for a moment, the cops are in your face. You can’t even stop,” said Wanda. According to Jeff Shantz, professor of criminology at KPU and member of Anti-Police Power Surrey, “The Police Mental Health Outreach Team is another example of the layered policing that is happening in Surrey, which is about extending the reach of police, surveillance, control, and capacities for criminalization into our neighbourhoods. Police outreach does not make our communities safer. They are there to maintain spaces for landowners, business-owners, and profitability, not for human needs in our community.”
Myth 4: Clearing the Strip was a compassionate response to homelessness
The RCMP statement on the anniversary of the Strip clearance claimed that “partner agencies,” like the City of Surrey, Lookout Society, and the Outreach Team, have responded compassionately to homelessness. “Assistance can range from ensuring an individual gets a hot meal… to offering shelter to someone found sleeping in their vehicle, to recognizing an individual in crisis who needs immediate access to treatment,” the RCMP claims.
Fact: Clearing the Strip was the City’s preparation for gentrification
The truth, veterans of the Strip explained, is that clearing 135A Street moved homeless people strategically out of sight, in order to open up Whalley for gentrification. “They didn’t solve homelessness. All they did was move people off of the Strip,” said Dave. “Why did they do that? Because there’s a massive gentrification plan for this area.” Just months after the Surrey Outreach Team was launched, the City of Surrey finalized its redevelopment plan for Surrey City Centre, which charts a “bold transformation” from a low-income, suburban town centre to a high-density, high-end downtown. In Wanda’s words, “The real reason they cleared the Strip was to ‘beautify’ the neighbourhood.”
Myth 5: Surrey is a “beacon of light” for other cities to follow
The RCMP press release quotes the Executive Director of Surrey Urban Mission Society (SUMS), who describes Surrey as a “beacon of light that other cities can follow.” While it is true that other municipal governments are following Surrey’s lead – by breaking up homeless encampments, establishing police outreach teams, and warehousing homeless people in dangerous and dehumanizing temporary modular housing – this is nothing to celebrate.
Fact: The Surrey model of policing homelessness is a death sentence for the poor
The clearance of the Surrey Strip has meant the loss of a homeless community hub. “We’re struggling harder now because we don’t have that support. When we were all in one area, we could go to our friends. We took care of each other,” said Bonnie. According to Wanda, “If you’re with a group of people and something happens, there’s help. But when you’re by yourself, who’s going to help you? People are dying because now they have nowhere to go.”
At the press conference, a reporter asked, “You’ve told us what’s wrong, but what would you like to see to make things right?” Dave responded, “It feels like such an easy thing. We need social housing. That means housing that people on welfare and disability can afford. Housing that is adequate, secure, and permanent. Housing that isn’t institutionalized, but is run by people themselves.” The press conference ended with former residents of the Surrey Strip and supporters coming together to raise their fists and chant, “Homes not shelters! Homes not cops! Homes not jails!”