“I’m done hiding around corners and behind dumpsters”: Life on the streets after the Surrey Strip
Wanda Stopa was a leader of the tent city on 135A Street, known as the Surrey Strip. She organized events and actions, including a rally and march against bylaw theft and a memorial for residents of the Strip who passed away. In June 2018, the City of Surrey dismantled the Surrey Strip as part of a massive gentrification scheme, but Wanda has remained a homeless community leader. She was part of initiating the July 7th Gathering and Remembrance of the breakup of the camp on 135A Street. We are printing Wanda’s reminiscences of life on and since the Surrey Strip because her testimony is a first-hand, direct rebuttal to the lies of the RCMP, City of Surrey, and service provider groups that are commemorating the end of the Strip as their triumph over homeless communities.
When they started clearing the Strip, I took myself and my dogs down to the creek. I didn’t want to be on the Strip while they were clearing it. I didn’t want to get in the way – cause a scene or whatever. I just wanted to stay out of it. Then four cops and four bylaw officers came charging down the hill and told me to get out of there, said I didn’t belong there. They came down there like I was breaking some law. What was I doing wrong?
They act like clearing the Strip was a huge success. They pretend like they helped everyone who lived there, but I’m the one who started the tent city on the Strip, I’ve been here six years, and I’m not even in a shelter. I’m still homeless. I know so many people from the Strip who never got into modular housing. People have been getting bounced from shelter to shelter, and in between, they have nowhere to go. They’re homeless, living in tents out in the bush somewhere, just like me. And I don’t know anybody from the modulars who has actually gotten a real, permanent home. How is that a success?
“They’re still bullies, that’s not going to change”
Over the past year, police and bylaw have 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. If you’re sitting on the grass outside Surrey Urban Mission Society (SUMS) – just sitting under a tree, in the shade, not doing anything – the cops and bylaw are on you right away. They tell you you’re on City property and you have to move along. They’re still bullies, that’s not going to change.
They’re targeting SUMS because that’s where we’re hanging out now, since we have nowhere else to go. We can’t go to the Front Room or the Parkway Shelter. If you go on shelter property, they’ll yell at you. You can’t visit anybody that stays there because they’ll get in trouble. If you’re in a shelter, nobody is supposed to know that you’re there. But how is anybody supposed to contact you then?
“They want us to go up north to freeze and die”
When they’re telling you to move along, sometimes bylaw will say that you can go to this or that park. So you go there and the next thing you know, you’re being told to leave because there’s a group of you hanging out. Well, you told us to come here – now what are we supposed to do? They tell us to go to a different municipality. They want us to leave the Lower Mainland altogether. They want us to go up north to freeze and die. They make threats like, “If you don’t move along, we’re going to take your things and get the crusher truck out here.” It’s going back to the way it was before the Strip, which was really rough.
Now they change up the Outreach Team every few months, so you’re always dealing with a different set of cops and bylaw. Bylaw told me they’re doing that because they don’t want it to be like it was on the Strip, where they got too close to us and they got soft on us. I’d like to know which ones were soft because I never met them. Anyways, aren’t outreach workers supposed to get to know you on a personal level and help you out? But when it comes to the Outreach Team, they aren’t supposed to see us as human. They’re supposed to see us as garbage.
“It’s getting to the point that something has got to be done”
I’m done hiding around corners and behind dumpsters. It’s not my fault I’m homeless. I’ve tried to find a place, but when you’re on basic welfare, you have two dogs, and you live in Surrey, then good luck. I’ve been bounced from shelter to shelter, and I gave up. I can’t do that anymore. I was staying in one shelter where I had to pack up my stuff every morning, get out of there, and stay out until bedtime. When you have all of your stuff with you, what can you do? Nothing, except sit outside the shelter. Next thing you know, there’s bylaw and the cops telling you to move along. Where are you supposed to go?
When they do their homeless count, they’re going to be amazed to see how many people are homeless. They’re going to realize they totally underestimated it a year ago when they decided to put up 160 units for more than a thousand people. Now we’re getting people from Maple Ridge, Vancouver, from the Island, from up north. They’re all told to come to Surrey.
I know so many people who want to go back to the Strip and start up again. It’s getting to the point that something has got to be done. More and more people are asking me, can we do this? I started the first tent city. If I have to start another one, I will.
Transcribed and edited by Isabel Krupp.