“Why put cops on outreach?” Homeless Strip residents pull back the veil on an open air prison operating in the heart of Surrey

On Monday May 1st, homeless residents of Surrey’s 135A “Strip” spoke out to the media against the police occupation of their two-block long tent camp. Approximately 100 people live on the industrial street under constant police surveillance and the constant regulatory gaze of civic bylaw officers who interrogate and direct their every move. Overcoming the fear of police retaliation for speaking out, a group of homeless residents detailed the harassment, intimidation, and theft and destruction of scant personal belongings they suffer in what feels like an open air prison operating in the heart of Surrey.

The framework for this police occupation is, ironically, health outreach. Surrey residents suffered one of the highest rates of opioid overdose deaths in 2016, and in the first few months of 2017 has had one of the highest rates of OD ambulance calls. The Province responded in December with promises of additional health resources – an overdose prevention site, and a supervised injection site.

News conference facilitator and Alliance Against Displacement organizer Dave Diewert explained that rather than provide these lifesaving health resources, “the response has been to initiate a new ‘outreach’ team on 135A comprised of 12 police officers and 4 bylaw officers. The question is – why put cops on outreach? Why hire law enforcement personnel who carry guns and are authorized to use lethal force to ‘support’ desperately poor people in urgent need of housing and healthcare?”

Residents of The Strip spoke out against “outreach” as a policing strategy, explaining that it results in brutality and humiliation, not access to housing and health care.  Odessa, a woman who has lived in a tent on The Strip for over a year, said, “I really don’t like how people are getting treated down here, including myself. We’ve had to throw out all our belongings repeatedly. I only get $200 a month, I can’t work, I don’t deal drugs; how am I supposed to replace things bylaw officers throw away? They don’t care how they treat us, they don’t care what happens to us.”

A reporter asked Odessa about the municipal bylaw rules that say you can’t sleep on the sidewalk. He asked, “Shouldn’t we follow the rules?” Odessa snapped back, “The rules? What about the rules that say buildings can sit empty while we sleep on the street?”

Following the recent Surrey Now Leader front page article that lionized the Surrey Outreach Team as a helping force (without interviewing a single homeless resident of the Strip), the same reporter continued, “Are you saying the police don’t help at all? They are here for a reason, there’s crime!” Odessa responded that over the year she has lived on the Strip she has made some good relationships with some officers but those relationships are short-lived because “the same officers I talk with also steal my stuff!”

The 135A “outreach team” in action

Asked if the police “outreach team” has helped her, Alexandra, a 21 year old woman who arrived at the tent camp a year ago from northern BC said, “Help us? I’ve asked for help several times and they turn me down. They come down here on a daily basis and tear down our tents. They bully us, they’re not nice at all. They come and rip open our doors while we’re asleep, harassing people. They literally take out tents, they rip down our tents and throw them in the dumpster, throw them into the garbage if we’re not moving fast enough for them. By 8 o’clock in the morning they’re there harassing all of us, yelling at all of us to get out tents down.”

Alexandra told a shocking story about police and overdose prevention. She said that when a friend of hers overdosed she tried to administer Naloxone and two police officers held her back. She pushed through and gave her dying friend the lifesaving shot, when the police “grabbed me and threw me down and cuffed me.” She said, “They claim they’re helping us but we’re all terrified of them.”

For four years Erin Schulte has regularly served free food to people on the Strip and she has seen the living conditions decline while levels of police repression increase. Against police claims that the Surrey Outreach Team has been a success with housing people and supporting them into treatment, Schulte said, “In 4 years I have only known 3 people who have found housing and gotten off the Strip.” She said that the City and police are managing homelessness but don’t have the solution. In a message to the Parties running in the BC election she said, “We can end homelessness by building housing. Housing is number one, health is number two.”

Lisa Freeman, a researcher and anti-poverty advocate spoke about the poverty visible on the Strip as an indicator of a much more widespread problem. Pointing towards a Canada-wide problem of the “suburbanization of poverty,” she said “35 percent of renters in Surrey are in core housing need; they are just a step away from homelessness here on the Strip.” She argued that the Strip is important from a policy framework and called for the BC Provincial parties to “start with the Strip and lift all people vulnerable to homelessness out of poverty.”

Dave Diewert explained that the imprisonment of poverty on The Strip is part of a larger policing trend in BC. “The 2017 Provincial election is taking place during the biggest crisis of poverty and homelessness in recent BC history but you wouldn’t know it from looking at the platforms of the Liberals and NDP,” he said. “On The Strip we see the containment and policing of poor people – it’s a war on the poor rather than a war on poverty. And in the BC election we see the same thing – the major Parties are trying to bury homelessness, to make the sort of poverty and police violence we see here the new normal. We are here to refuse and resist that new normal.”

This news conference event was part of Alliance Against Displacement’s anti-election week of action against homelessness as the “new normal” that began Friday with the 10 Year Tent City in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, then with the Surrey Strip news conference against policing poverty, and will continue throughout the rest of the week before the 2017 BC election.