SURREY, BC (Unceded Coast Salish Territories): Homeless residents of Sanctuary Tent City sent a letter to Fire Chief Larry Thomas on Thursday, July 25, calling for the Surrey Fire Department to cooperate with their efforts to increase fire safety at the camp.

“We’re taking proactive steps to make the camp as safe as possible,” said Sanctuary Tent City resident Wanda Stopa. “We just need resources.” Campers have requested fire extinguishers and shovels for every campsite, and fire safety training for residents. They are waiting to receive a reply from the Surrey Fire Department.

Sanctuary Tent City residents worry that fire safety concerns will be used to displace the camp. “They already have it in their heads they don’t want us here,” said resident Dave Rollins. “When the Deputy Fire Chief, Mark Griffioen, visited two weeks ago, he said he had no problem chasing us from camp to camp.” 

“Displacing Sanctuary Tent City, when campers have nowhere else to go, will only increase fire risks. Campers will be scattered and isolated, living alone in the bush without the supports that protect the community from fire and the many other harms of homelesssness,” said Alliance Against Displacement organizer Isabel Krupp.

Sanctuary Tent City residents argue that it is unreasonable for the City of Surrey to focus exclusively on fire safety. “Fire isn’t the only risk we face,” said resident Rory Kohinsky. Homeless deaths in Surrey quadrupled between 2007 and 2016, primarily as a result of the overdose crisis. Homeless people continue to die in the streets of Surrey. “Tent cities save lives,” said Wanda. “At Sanctuary Tent City, we’re a community. We look out for each other and keep each other safe. Fire safety is just one aspect of that.” 

“In Maple Ridge and recently, at Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver, we’ve seen the politicization of fire departments. We’ve seen ‘fire safety’ get used as a political tool to threaten, contain, and displace homeless camps. We can’t let that happen here in Surrey,” said Isabel Krupp. “We need to adopt a harm reduction approach to the question of fire safety.”

Letter to Surrey Fire Department from Sanctuary Tent City

Date: Thursday, July 25
To: Fire Chief Larry Thomas; CC: Deputy Fire Chief Mark Griffioen
City of Surrey, 13450 104th Ave Surrey, BC V3T 1V8
From: Residents of Sanctuary Tent City

Mr. Thomas,

As you know, the number of homeless people in Surrey is growing and has outstripped the current availability of spaces in temporary shelters and modular units. Service providers in Whalley have firmly stated that they are operating at or above capacity. It is also evident that these temporary and transitional shelter options are not homes; people cycle in and out of them on a regular basis. 

In light of this crisis of growing homelessness, a group of us have taken up shelter on City of Surrey property, in a wooded area on the northside of King George Blvd near Bridgeview. We have erected our tents, established a residents’ council, and have support networks in the wider community. Since this site has been a place of refuge for us over the past few months, we have named it Sanctuary Tent City. 

We know from experience that organized encampments of homeless people provide greater safety than tenting alone in the bush, and Supreme Court Justices have agreed with this assessment, ruling that Section 7 of the Charter protects against the displacement of tent cities. We are committed to keeping one another safe to the best of our abilities and resources. 

We are writing to request a meeting between the Sanctuary Tent City Residents’ Council and the Surrey Fire Department to discuss fire safety at camp. We are asking for fire safety supplies, including a fire extinguisher and shovel at every campsite, and training so we can take proactive steps in ensuring the safety of the site and all of its residents while housing options are pursued. 

Please contact us to establish a day and time for a visit to Sanctuary Tent City. We hope to hear from you soon.

Sanctuary Tent City Residents Council