For Immediate Release
June 24th, 2020
BREAKING: CITY OF SURREY ORDERS TENT CITY RESIDENTS OFF EMPTY LOT, BACK TO ALLEYS AND DOORWAYS
UNCEDED KWANTLEN, KATZIE, KWIKWETLEM, QAYQAYT TERRITORY (SURREY): On the morning of Wednesday June 24th, which is welfare cheque issue day, Surrey Bylaw officers returned to Whalley World Tent City and delivered a threatening eviction notice.
The first page of the notice reads:
ATTENTION: NOTICE OF TRESPASS
You are hereby notified by the City of Surrey that you are inside fenced premises owned by the City of Surrey.
YOU ARE NOT PERMITTED TO ENTER OR BE WITHIN THE FENCED PREMISES. LEAVE IMMEDIATELY.
FAILURE TO COMPLY WITH THIS NOTICE MAY LEAD TO YOUR ARREST AND/OR PROSECUTION.
The second page consists only of excerpts from the British Columbia Trespass Act, claiming that “a person who… enters premises that are enclosed” and “has had notice from… an authorized person that the entry is prohibited” can be arrested and charged with Trespass.
The women who put down tents in the empty, publicly-owned lot on Saturday June 19th after a rally held to protest against gentrification said they won’t go so easily.
One of these tent city founders, Wanda Stopa, said, “It’s time to take back the Strip.” Stopa was referring to the long standing 135A Strip: a tent city that stretched along the 2-block long secondary roadway that runs beside King George Highway in the heart of Whalley.
The City of Surrey displaced the 135A Strip two years ago in order to sweep the crisis of homelessness under the rug and clear the streets for the gentrifying redevelopment of Whalley, residents say.
Since then street sweeps, bylaw officer theft of homeless people’s belongings, and constant police, bylaw, and private security guard harassment has become a daily routine.
Now, with police threatening to arrest the 30 people who have made a makeshift home on a vacant lot, many are saying they would rather risk arrest than to go back to being pushed around in the streets.
After the bylaw officers left, Kendra, another founder of the camp, said, “They’re offering a shelter bed – a cement pad with a thin mat in a Covid hotspot – or jail? I’ll fight back and risk jail, thanks.”
Another resident, Sandra, gave voice to a common sentiment around the camp: that the city has broken the trust of people living on the street. “The only reason we left the strip was that we were promised a real home. But the mods [temporary modular housing] are like jail.”
Sandra said that people on the street feel like the City of Surrey has abandoned them to suffer and die, shoved into the corners of the city. Whalley World is a grassroots effort to create the shelter and safety that people consigned to the streets need, and it is also a protest against this unjust order. “At this tent city we’re standing for what we believe in,” she said.
Homeless people at Whalley World Tent City have been denied reasonable, safe accommodations by the City of Surrey and the Province of British Columbia. Left with no other choice, they have occupied this city-owned vacant lot in order to improve their access to safety and security against the pressing and immediate health and safety dangers of daily displacement, violence, social isolation, Covid-19, and the opioid overdose crisis.
Isabel Krupp, a supporter of the camp and organizer with Red Braid Alliance for Decolonial Socialism, explains that British Columbia courts have ruled repeatedly that these conditions, taken together, mean that homeless people have a right under Section 7 of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms – the right to “security of the person” – that is more significant than the City’s right under the lower law of the Provincial Trespass Act.
“The police do not have the legal power to raid Whalley World Tent City,” Krupp said. “But unfortunately that does not mean they won’t. The police have the armed power to displace homeless people, regardless of what their rights are supposed to be. The RCMP was built to displace and dispossess Indigenous people and to detain and deport poor racialized and ‘undesirable’ people. Why would they stop now?”
The US Centre for Disease Control released a statement in May calling for governments to change how they respond to “homeless encampments” in the context of the Covid-19 public health pandemic. The CDC release said, “Lack of housing contributes to poor physical and mental health outcomes, and linkages to permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness should continue to be a priority.” But in the context where “individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are.” The danger, the CDC said, is that “clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers.”
United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing Leilani Farha made a similar statement in March. For populations “living in emergency shelters, homelessness, and informal settlements,” she recommended that governments extend “winter moratoriums on forced evictions of informal settlements.”
Farha made a still stronger statement specifically about homeless people in Canada. In a report released on April 30th, Farha called on governments, at all 3 levels, in Canada to “interact with [homeless encampments] in a manner that upholds human rights.” This report recognized that homelessness is ballooning in Canada and one of the most important signs of that growth is homeless camps. “Encampments,” she writes, “are a reflection of Canadian governments’ failure to successfully implement the right to adequate housing.”
Closer to home, Bernie Pauly, a health researcher with the University of Victoria and contributor to the book Pandemic Preparedness and Homelessness: Lessons from H1N1 in Canada, said that the last thing cities should do in response to homeless people gathering in camps is to break them up and scatter them or force them into congregate shelters.
An open letter co-authored by Pauly and signed by more than 170 individuals and organizations explained, “People cannot shelter in place or self-isolate if they being displaced and their possessions removed.” The letter called for governments and police to “cease the forced eviction or dismantling of self-governed encampments of homeless people as they can be safer options than shelters and large scale, state-operated camps.”
As a public body, the City of Surrey has a special responsibility to use its properties in the interests of the public at large. Even the colonial and capitalist legal system recognizes that cities cannot just throw people seeking shelter and safety off publicly owned properties without providing them adequate shelter.
Anna Cooper with Pivot Legal Society, explained in a notice from April 2020 that “COVID-19 arguably presents a risk of “imminent peril” and unsheltered and inadequately-housed people have clearly been given “no reasonable legal alternative.” Ultimately, the harm those individuals would face if forcibly removed from (or prevented from accessing) their occupied locations likely far outweighs any harm experienced by government as a result of vacant properties being temporarily occupied on an emergency basis.”
In a blatant effort to overcome Charter claims that the City and police must not remove homeless people from the vacant lot on 135A Street, an outreach worker showed up with the police to offer a bed in a congregate shelter to anyone who happened to be at the camp at that moment.
Al, a camp resident, said he is skeptical about the City’s sudden offer of shelter beds. “All of a sudden there’s a shelter open for everyone. Last week I saw dozens turned away to the cold,” he said. Al said he believes “the only reason they’re offering us shelter is that they don’t want us here, because they’ll lose money with us here.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, Whalley World Tent City is still standing. Residents are awaiting the return of the police to try to evict them, and are determined not to be displaced to greater danger once again.