Homeless victims of street sweeps start fightback against the City of Surrey

On Monday, March 1st, Shiloh Cheyanna Ghostkeeper had her belongings seized by bylaw officers, including the tent, bedding, and warm clothes she needs to survive winter nights on the streets of Surrey. “It bothers me because it wasn’t just my stuff,” Shiloh said. “I just spent $50 at the laundromat washing blankets for other people. We need those dry blankets.”

On Monday morning, bylaw officer Jag Bhandal decided Shiloh’s belongings were garbage; he seized and disposed of them without giving her any opportunity to retrieve her possessions. When she protested, Bhandal threatened her with arrest. Shiloh explained, “This has happened to me many times before, but I’ve been able to stop them before. This time they threatened to send me to jail.”

The incident has taken a heavy toll on Shiloh. “I cried all day yesterday,” she said. “It messes with a person’s head, mentally, and it messes with you physically.” 

Shiloh Ghostkeeper, whose possessions were recently stolen and thrown away by Surrey bylaw officer Jag Bhandal (VOLCANO)

Isabel Krupp, an organizer with Red Braid Alliance, contacted the Surrey Bylaw office just hours after Shiloh was robbed. She was told, “Those belongings are no longer available to retrieve. They have been removed and discarded.” The manager of Community Enforcement, Martin Blais, elaborated, “We don’t have a holding facility where we can retain [belongings]. There has to be a continuous movement when it comes to seizing items.” Blais explained that the City of Surrey endows individual bylaw officers with the power to dispose of homeless people’s belongings at whim. “If we think it’s garbage, it immediately goes into a disposal vehicle,” he said. Once items are thrown away, there is no way to retrieve them.

Shiloh decided to speak out about her experience to pressure the City of Surrey to change its discriminatory policies. She reached out to Red Braid Alliance and the Whalley Street Council, a group of unhoused and underhoused community leaders, for help organizing a response. Together they drafted a leaflet condemning bylaw and police theft, developed a list of demands for the City and Province, and organized an emergency rally and press conference for Thursday, March 4th.

“The cops and bylaw say they’re outreach workers, but they haven’t gotten me a place. They haven’t done anything to help,” Shiloh said. “The only help I need right now is people standing strong beside me.” 

Shiloh’s experience resonated on the streets of Surrey. The Whalley Street Council distributed more than a hundred leaflets throughout North Surrey, inviting people on the streets, in shelters, and modular housing to the rally. The most common response was, “About time!” Dozens of people shared harrowing stories of losing precious, irreplaceable belongings, including family photographs and loved one’s ashes, to police and bylaw officers. 

On Thursday afternoon, a small crowd gathered in front of a banner that read, “Homes not Theft.” They chanted, “Mayor McCallum, don’t you know? We are here and we won’t go! Martin Blais don’t you know? We are here and we won’t go!” 

Wanda Stopa, a longtime community leader and member of the Whalley Street Council, opened the press conference. She spoke about her own experiences losing belongings to Surrey bylaw and RCMP, including “my ID, my medication, everything.” Wanda applauded Shiloh for “going after the City.” She said, “I’ve tried many times myself to get compensated, but they just laughed at me.” 

Wanda also called on the City of Surrey to provide secure storage lockers for unhoused people. “They have nowhere to put their stuff. Anything you can’t carry, bylaw puts in the garbage. Because to them, it’s garbage. But to us it’s our treasures, our belongings. It’s the only things we have left.”

Stephen speaks to the need for social housing, as poor people are displaced from Whalley (VOLCANO)

Stephen Meyer, a veteran of the Hothouse Squat that took over the empty North Surrey Rec Centre in the spring of 2020, described the relationship between gentrification and bylaw theft. “There are billion dollar highrises going up all around us, and not one of these properties is being built for people that are on the street,” he said. “They’re trying to push us out of here, but they’re not pushing us anywhere except to our deaths.”

Neil Morgan, known in the community as ‘Caveman,’ called on the City and Province to build social housing. “They can afford all these brand new trucks to haul our stuff away while we’re living on the streets. Now the Mayor is asking for a 2% raise in his salary. If they can afford that, they can afford to put up some affordable housing for the rest of us,” he said.

Isabel Krupp from Red Braid Alliance shared preliminary findings from an ongoing community research project the Whalley Street Council is conducting on homeless people’s experiences with police and bylaw officers in Surrey. The Council has surveyed 40 members of the Surrey street community, finding that 85% of respondents have lost belongings to police, bylaw, private security, or social workers. Isabel argued that City of Surrey policies, which allow for the routine theft of homeless people’s belongings by police and bylaw officers, contravene Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees the right to security of the person and property. 

The press conference ended with four demands: for the City of Surrey to immediately end police and bylaw theft, provide secure storage lockers for every unhoused person in Surrey, and compensate Shiloh Cheyanna Ghostkeeper $1,000 for her lost belongings; and for the Province of BC to build permanent social housing with rights under the RTA for every unhoused and underhoused person living in BC.

To register a complaint with the Surrey Bylaw Office, contact Manager Martin Blais at martin.blais@surrey.ca. To voice support for the Whalley Street Council’s demands, contact Mayor McCallum at mayor@surrey.ca and Councillors Brenda Locke and Steven Pettigrew at brenda.locke@surrey.ca and steven.pettigrew@surrey.ca

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