Advocates for the homeless are calling attention to recent events in Surrey, describing a sustained siege on people who are living in tents and who have nowhere else to go.
“For three full days, the City of Surrey mobilized police, bylaw officers, a dozen city workers, and heavy equipment in order to remove homeless residents from the ‘Billboards’ encampment, known as Sanctuary Tent City,” reads a December 1 release issued by the activist group Alliance Against Displacement (AAD).
“Camps like Sanctuary Tent City are life-saving spaces where homeless people build community, help one another survive, and find a political voice,” it continues. “And as long as the homelessness crisis continues and people are forced to endure harsh winter conditions, the City of Surrey must provide homeless communities with the basic resources they need, rather than pursue a policy of constant criminalization and displacement.”
The city claims it is only relocating people on a voluntary basis and helping them find more stable accommodations. “No one was forced to move from the homeless encampment site,” the city’s statement reads.
But AAD argues the city’s actions constitute an “assault” on the homeless who have pitched tents at the Billboards encampment.
“Tent city residents describe a process of displacement, destruction, and theft,” its release reads.
This latest back-and-forth with the city has resulted in one “victory” for the campers, the AAD release continues.
“The City has allowed campers to set up their tents on an adjacent municipal property,” it explains. “For those who can’t stay in shelters or find housing, this means a place where they can camp without the impending threat of removal.”
Surrey has the second-largest homeless population in Metro Vancouver, according to the region’s 2017 homeless count. There were 602 people living in Surrey without a fixed address that year. Of those, 201 were counted on the streets while 384 were in shelters.
Municipalities across British Columbia are struggling with growing populations of homeless people. In many jurisdictions, local authorities are responding with policies that are less than friendly toward people who have fallen on hard times.
In Kelowna, for example, where CBC News recently reported shelters are full, city employees are forcibly relocating people who are camping in public spaces. The city has made a space for homeless campers available in Kelowna’s north end. But bylaw officers are also instructing people who are sympathetic to the homeless to refrain from making charitable donations. “We are just going to take it away,” one Kelowna bylaw officer said, according to another CBC News report. That article notes is was below -10 C in Kelowna last week.
Other municipalities such as Maple Ridge and Salmon Arm have passed bylaws this year prohibiting “aggressive” panhandling, according to a Globe and Mail report.
In Vancouver, dozens of tents have stood in the Downtown Eastside’s Oppenheimer Park for more than a year now. City council and the parks board have publicly disagreed on how best to respond to the camp, which the city’s police department claims is a danger to public safety.
Last Saturday (November 30), the city said it has opened three winter-warming shelters in close proximity to Oppenheimer Park and is currently working with some 50 campers to find spaces for them indoors.
On October 23, Vancouver city council voted to instruct staff to come up with a "collaborative decampment" plan that will "restore the park for broad public use".
Last June, the city revealed that in 2019, the number of homeless people in Vancouver had increased for the fourth year in a row.
There were 2,223 homeless residents counted this year, compared to 2,181 in 2018, 2,138 the year before that, and 1,847 in 2017.