The City of Surrey is defending the amount of money it’s spending on the Surrey Outreach Team on 135A Street after a Kwantlen Polytechnic University professor questioned whether the resources would be better spent elsewhere.
A Freedom of Information request has revealed the City of Surrey decided to spend $288,450 on the two-year pilot project to address issues on the infamous Strip after an increase in homelessness there, and a spike in fatal overdoses across the province.
The Surrey Outreach Team is a pilot project consisting of 12 Mounties and four bylaw officers that became operational 24/7 on Jan. 4, 2017. The team is primarily in the area from 104th to 108th Avenues between City Parkway and King George Boulevard, operating out of a Surrey Command Centre on 135A Street.
The $288,000 figure, according to city documents, includes $73,000 for site preparation, $86,945 for a two-year trailer lease, $35,905 for IT up fitting, $3,000 for signage, $69,600 for monthly services costs (including hydro, telephone and janitorial service), and a $20,000 contingency fund.
That doesn’t include salaries or related operating costs for RCMP members or bylaw officers, which are covered under other budgets.
Professor Dr. Michael Ma, in the KPU’s Department of Criminology, questioned the city’s allocation of funds toward the outreach team.
He shared his observations during a Feb. 13 talk at the university, during which he revealed preliminary research he’s been conducting about those who live on 135A Street.
“Imagine all that money it took to put this mobile command unit up – all of that money could have gone towards hiring social workers instead of towards public order policing budget,” said Ma.
|Dr. Michael Ma|
He said there’s a “limitation in the imagination of the City of Surrey,” and said some of those funds may have been better invested in social services, as opposed to policing.
“Everyday, for instance, there is now eight officers that have been hand-picked because they were supposed to have soft skills,” he elaborated, “and they weren’t supposed to be these super aggressive police officers, who are kind of law and order. They were supposed to be the softer guys who had a bit of training in terms of addictions. But they’re still officers and they still have a big thing that says police, and they carry a taser and all of that.”
They still, said Ma, project a “certain type of order.”
“Maybe that’s not the best service to provide for people who are living, like this person,” he said, pointing to a photo of a man sitting on the sidewalk on 135A Street. “That person doesn’t need a police officer to help him. It’s self-evident.”
Though, Ma said there is “politicization” of this issue.
“The businesses around the area have complained for many years about having this kind of skid row, down and out area,” he said. “But this is an issue for any community or any country that has problematic substance use. Nobody wants it in their neighbourhood. So where are you supposed to put it? It cost a lot of money to build that temporary police shelter for the cops. Maybe they could have built a shelter for the people who are homeless, instead.”
Councillor Vera LeFranc said she disagrees with Ma’s analysis.
“I think $288,000 over two years would not have purchased very much in terms of social workers,” she told the Now-Leader.
“It’s a great investment for many reasons,” LeFranc added. “One of them, people who live on 135A Street are some of our most vulnerable. I did work with a professor for KPU who was looking at the crime side of things and homeless people are six times more likely to be victimized. When we send in the Surrey Outreach Team, crime in that region goes down, in particular violent crime goes down.”
Also important to note, said LeFranc, is that the outreach team brings together bylaws, ambulance, fire and social services to “provide a stable environment for people who are down there and to build real relationships.”
The outreach team’s efforts, she noted, helps in “resetting the norms of behaviour.”
Manuals have been created to explain to people “what types of behaviours can be expected and appreciated on 135A Street so people can live as comfortably as possible.”
The “135A Street Rule Card” includes Dos and Don’ts.
Dos include sticking to one tarp per tent, keeping a distance of three feet between each tent, only using flame-resistant tarps, stowing away tents between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., tent openings be set up to face the street, to use overdose prevention sites for drug use and to dispose of needles in the proper boxes provided at the outreach team trailer and the emergency Gateway shelter on the street.
Don’ts on the rule card include refraining from using gas-fueled lamps, heaters and burners in tents; no candles or flames being used in tents; no smoking near tents; no fuels or gases near tents; no public defecating or urinating; no drug use inside tents or public places; no storage in tents; and no weapons to which there are “no exceptions.”
|Surrey Councillor Vera LeFranc|
LeFranc said even outreach workers who were “skeptical” of the outreach team have “now fully embraced the outreach team and feel it’s a shining example of Surrey innovation.”
She said the outreach team is also helping create empathy for those living along the Strip.
“There’s a lot of stigma attached to mental health and addictions,” she elaborated. “By providing empathetic bylaw officers, RCMP officers, they actually act as ambassadors to the rest of the general public about who these vulnerable people are. It does help to set a tone that’s more compassionate.”
LeFranc said there hasn’t yet been discussion about whether the outreach team will continue past next January, when the pilot project is set to conclude.
“I think we’ll have to wait to see with the 160 units of housing that are coming immediately,” she said, referring to temporary modular housing the province has committed to opening in early spring, to be replaced by 250 permanent housing units within a year.
“But we’re hoping that the tent city, for sure, will be gone and we will have some sort of normalized street behaviour on 135A Street,” said LeFranc. “Really, people do want to be inside so the Surrey Outreach Team has just done an outstanding job in building relationships and helping people move further along the continuum and create a readiness for change…. One of the most important things we can do as a community is keep them safe and alive until they’re ready.”
On Wednesday, LeFranc attended a one-year anniversary event for a Guildford shelter the city set up in 2017. She said that shelter has housed roughly 90 people and 11 couples.
“That’s such a positive. When people are ready to make that choice, we need to be there to help them along the way.”
The FOI requests that revealed the city’s spending were filed by Mike Larsen, co-chair of KPU’s Criminology Department and president of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association. Larsen said his work was part of an initiative by the Social Justice Centre after colleagues working on issues related to homelessness and harm reduction in Surrey approached him to discuss filing such FOIs.
Their interest, Larsen noted, was based on conversations with community members including those with Alliance Against Displacement who were experiencing the unfolding of the then-new plan.