Will Surrey council make it illegal to sleep overnight in RVs and campers on city streets?
That remains to be seen after Surrey council referred the proposal back to staff on Monday (Oct. 21), largely over concerns surrounding the impact the decision would have on vulnerable populations in the city amid an already stressed housing market.
Staff had presented council with bylaw amendments that would make it illegal to occupy a motorhome or RV on Surrey roads between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. It would also prohibit such vehicles from parking for more than three hours between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. adjacent to public parks, schools, churches or homes, and the vehicles could not be occupied while parked there.
The proposal materialized less than a month after the Now-Leader published an in-depth article on the subject, highlighting current resident frustrations as well as the perspective of a man who currently chooses to live in his motorhome in Surrey.
The changes, staff wrote in a report to council, aim to to “address the growing concerns of residents and businesses.”
The report says the issuance of tickets, towing and impounding such vehicles would “considered only after efforts at voluntary compliance have failed” and note it would be a “last resort.”
“Bylaw Services staff are mindful to the specific circumstances of each situation and, where applicable, may offer assistance to connect the occupants of the vehicle with social services that may be able to assist with suitable housing,” the report states.
But Michael Musgrove, executive director of Surrey Urban Mission that runs a shelter in Whalley, told the Now-Leader he didn’t “understand the timing” of the proposal.
“We have a housing crisis and we are taking away an opportunity for people looking for creative ways to survive,” he said. “The idea that we can motivate people to go into housing by taking away their vehicles would make sense if there was housing available. In addition, I highly doubt that a person choosing to live in a camper over a home. We may need to address the nuisance issue and maybe we need a bylaw with some bite, but this is being sold as a motivator to get people housed.”
After council’s decision, Musgrove said it was “uplifting” to see council thoughtfully consider this proposal, instead of simply approving it.
Councillor Brenda Locke was the first to speak against proposed bylaw amendments at Monday night’s council meeting, saying the issue “seems to be a symptom of the larger problem, which is homelessness and our housing crisis.”
Locke noted Surrey has one of the worst vacancy rates in the Lower Mainland, at 0.4 per cent, and questioned “the ultimate actions” that would come if the proposal was approved in its current form.
“We have such limited affordable housing, we have zero supportive housing, we have zero shelter housing, and we know this year when it comes to emergency weather housing, we’re going to be challenged by that. This corporate report in my mind is punitive to people in need and unhoused residents in the City of Surrey,” she stressed to her colleagues.
Surrey First Councillor Linda Annis agreed, as did independent Councillor Steven Pettigrew.
Pettigrew suggested a “specialized” approach for various neighbourhoods “rather than a blanket approach across the city.”
Pettigrew also expressed his concern that the move would penalize people with RVs who are not homeless, such as residents who just need to work on their RV outside.
“We’re going to be sending the message that Surrey’s not open for RV business,” he said.
Independent Councillor Jack Hundial said the city isn’t seeing a large spike in this behaviour, noting the city received 27 complaints in 2017 which dropped to 15 in 2018 and so far this year, the city has had 33 complaints, amounting to 75.
Doug Elford was the lone councillor who supported the proposal in its current form.
Elford noted in his previous work as a Vancouver environmental officer, he was in charge of the recreational vehicle file and said this updated bylaw would bring Surrey “up to Vancouver standards.”
Elford said he saw “huge” and “measurable” environmental impacts in Vancouver when RV clusters would establish, pointing to sewage impacts and the use of diesel generators.
“Right now it’s very difficult to address these issues and deal with them (in Surrey),” said Elford. “Now my expectation of bylaws is to be empathetic and to entertain discretion when enforcing these bylaws but we need the tools in the toolbox to deal with the problematic circumstances that may arise occasionally.”
Mayor Doug McCallum, meantime, expressed concern about what he described as an “escalating” issue in Surrey.
According to McCallum, the issue of homeless residents sleeping in vehicles has popped up in Crescent Beach.
The mayor said where he walks in the morning he witnessed people sleeping inside one vehicle in the parking lot, then “a couple of days later there was 10 vehicles parked in the parking lot with a whole bunch of people.”
“Then a few days or a week later, there was a lot more than that,” he remarked. “And the community down there got in arms because these people just left in the morning and there was garbage everywhere.”
McCallum said he’s heard of other areas in Surrey currently dealing with the issue, also.
“As soon as one or two is allowed, all of the sudden there’s four, then six and seven, and it’s a whole group. And it happens quickly, within a week sometimes.”
Further, McCallum said such clusters can be “very dangerous.”
During a visit to Vancouver a few weeks ago, McCallum said he saw whole groups of such vehicles.
“Most of these campers have propane tanks, they weren’t properly used, and in talking with Vancouver, it’s a real fast-moving problem in the city right now because one camper unit can have 10 people living in it. And the health care of that is very, very serious.”
Surrey council ultimately voted to refer the proposal back to staff, with only Elford opposed.
McCallum directed staff to “take in the considerations of some of the members of council and to bring back a report fairly quickly.”
“It is escalating in Surrey and we need to address it,” the mayor added.
On Tuesday, after the council meeting, McCallum told Black Press Media he started seeing “not nice-looking vans” and campers at Blackie Spit in Crescent Beach “literally a couple weeks ago.”
McCallum told Black Press Media he was “a little scared” and directed staff to lock the gate at the Blackie Spit parking lot around 10 p.m., until sunrise, every day.
McCallum said the overnight visitors were “certainly people that were just moving around.”
“Once we did the gates… there’s nobody in there.”
In its report to council, staff note the city “periodically” receives complaints about large vehicles parking overnight on city streets and that the issues raised tend to surround “impacts on available parking for residents, staff and customers and the impact to surrounding areas as a result of debris, noise, improper waste or sewage disposal, unsightly or wrecked vehicles, improper electrical connections and parking violations.”
City staff note the changes aim of the change is to “provide greater motivation to the occupants of Large Vehicles to move to suitable housing.” Currently, the only law on Surrey’s books pertaining to the matter restricts vehicles from being parked in the same spot for more than 72 hours.
Surrey staff say this approach is consistent with enforcement practices of other Lower Mainland municipalities. If the amendments to the city’s Highway and Traffic Bylaw pass, the law would apply to “Large Vehicles” which the city defines as “recreational vehicles and campers.”