The NIMBYs lost at Surrey City Hall last week, but who won?

A dozen homeless people and supporters rallied outside Surrey City Hall on Monday, July 22, calling for “Homes Not Hate.” The rally was a hasty response to flyers that were circulating throughout Surrey, spreading myths and promoting hate against drug users and homeless people in an effort to block a proposed supportive housing project in Guildford. This 63-unit project, as well as a second 38-unit supportive housing project proposed for Whalley, were hot topics at Monday’s city council meeting. 

Mayor and council were ultimately unswayed by the vocal opposition to the projects, and voted unanimously in favour of building 101 units of supportive housing in Guildford and Whalley. But homeless activists are not uncritically celebrating their decision. We understand that excluding homeless people from neighbourhoods by expulsion or by containment in supportive housing are two sides of the same coin. The fight for homes and against hate must press on.

“Some of us do not feel safe in our houses”: Who belongs to the public?

Supportive housing opponents were out in force, leveraging their status as “respectable” citizens, homeowners, and taxpayers, and repeating poor-bashing tropes from the flyer that had been circulating in the days prior. They made alarmist claims about stray needles and petty crime, offering no evidence apart from their feelings of fear and danger, which should be understood as manifestations of moral panic and class anxiety, rather than reflective of any real threat. Over and over, speakers put their feelings of safety above the actual safety of drug users and homeless people, who are dying in the streets of Surrey at devastating rates.   

One prominent speaker, Arnie Evans, who wore a t-shirt that read “Best Grandpa Ever,” spoke about drug users and homeless people as an invading force, not as members of the community. He said, “These people come into your area and terrorize it.” Another speaker claimed that supporters of the proposed projects were “not even from the neighbourhood.” Underlying this claim was an understanding of “the neighbourhood” as not only a geographic region, but an ideological space – explicitly defined as “nice, clean, and quiet,” and implicitly coded as white and middle class. Drug users and homeless people, regardless of where they live, were excluded from the category of “the neighbour.” 

As is the case in the rest of Surrey, most people living in Whalley and Guildford are not white – but those who showed up at City Hall to oppose supportive housing under the banner of “public safety” were overwhelmingly white. In Canada, “the public” is racialized as white and “public safety” implies the defense of the white supremacist settler colonial order from threats posed by racialized and Indigenous “outsiders.” At City Hall, there were several speakers among the opposition who identified themselves as representatives of immigrant and refugee communities, although did not specify if they belonged to any particular organization. As racialized migrants, they attempted to claim belonging within a society where communities of colour are constructed as perpetual outsiders, by participating in the exclusion of the poor and positioning homeless people as the real outsiders. Their participation in anti-poor exclusion has a different character from that of white business- and property-owners, because it reveals their own exclusion and precarity, rather than a sense of entitlement and superiority.

Surround the poor with chain-link fences: Service providers respond to “public safety” concerns

Arnie Evans, “Best Grandpa Ever,” speaking against housing at Surrey Council. Photo credit: Justin McElroy (@j_mcelroy)

Against the anti-supportive housing forces, government and non-profit service providers preached charity and compassion. But the opposition between anti-poor exclusion and liberal tolerance hid the underlying similarities between the two camps. Both opponents and proponents of supportive housing view homelessness as a product of individual faults and failures – mental illness, addiction, criminality – and press for solutions that isolate and target homeless and “at risk” populations, rather than seek to transform the whole of society. 

Bigots conclude that drug users and homeless people should be cast out of our communities or eliminated altogether, while service providers advocate for the surveillance, containment, and management of the poor. According to Lynda Edmonds, the CEO of Fraserside Community Services, “An important aspect of these projects is security,” which she described only in terms of surveillance cameras, chain-link fences, and collaboration with police. 

Under the supportive housing model, staff enter residents’ rooms without permission, restrict guest access, set arbitrary rules, refuse residents’ rights to safety and well-being on their own terms, and punish anyone who complains. Supportive housing operators sidestep the Residential Tenancy Act (RTA) by requiring residents to sign “program agreements,” instead of tenancy agreements. Bailey Mumford, a director of Lookout Housing Society, told Surrey City Council that this practice “is great, because it gives us greater flexibility.” In other words, it allows them to treat residents as “program participants,” not as tenants with rights under the RTA.  

Homeless and drug user activists sat through hours of hate speech to represent their communities at Surrey City Hall. Jennifer Rouse, a resident of Sanctuary Tent City, told council, “I’m not homeless because of mental illness or addiction. I’m homeless because I can’t afford rent.” Jennifer was a construction worker until she was assaulted by a police officer, leaving her physically unable to work. According to Jennifer and others who live at Sanctuary Tent City, the solution to the crisis of homelessness is not supportive housing, but dignified, secure, and permanent homes for everybody in need. Jennifer asked, “Why should we pay rent to live in jail?” 

Just before 11:00 pm, after nearly three hours of discussion, Surrey City Council voted unanimously to approve both supportive housing projects. Homeless activists were relieved that the opposition was defeated, but the victory rang hollow for some. “We need housing, but not this kind of housing,” said Sanctuary Tent City resident Rory Kohinsky. According to Alliance Against Displacement organizer, Dave Diewert, “Moving people off the streets into supportive housing, where they can be surveilled, contained, and managed, may serve the interests of businesses and developers in the rapidly gentrifying City Centre, but does nothing to challenge the violent social order that produces homelessness in the first place.”

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