Residents of the Semiahmoo Peninsula called, during a recent public forum, for Surrey and White Rock councils to commit to taking action to support people in the community experiencing homelessness.
Organized by Peninsula Homelessness to Housing Task Force (PH2H) in South Surrey, the forum drew more than 150 people on Tuesday (June 20) evening. Presenters included representatives from BC Housing, the City of Surrey, Sources and Options Community Services, discussing current available options in the community for those living, or at-risk of becoming, unhoused.
Many people’s concerns were raised during the Q&A period at the end of the evening.
“It is such an issue and so heartbreaking… We see people, we see them getting kicked out of the mall, sometimes deservedly so, and it is heartbreaking to see. We need (solutions) in White Rock. We, in this room, have the power to speak to White Rock council, they shouldn’t be off the hook,” said Maureen Joyce, who has lived in White Rock for 52 years.
Other individuals expressed similar sentiments, with one man from White Rock saying that he has gone to city councils before but has not received a response he considers suitable to address the issue.
“The normal response I’m getting is ‘not in my backyard.’ How do we overcome the city council in actually establishing a facility within the boundaries of White Rock?” he asked the panel.
BC Housing’s shelter and supportive housing advisor Louise Sallai encouraged residents to have conversations with their local MLAs and continue speaking with city councils.
White Rock Mayor Megan Knight and Coun. Elaine Cheung were present at the forum, but were no longer in the room when residents raised concerns about local government during the question period.
In a Peace Arch News request for an interview with Knight on the topic, the city’s communications department instead provided a statement via email on her behalf.
“Councillor Cheung and I attended the forum on Tuesday evening because housing and homelessness is a deep concern for our community members and for council,” the statement reads.
“The issue concerns our entire community, and I will be speaking with Mayor Locke when we meet next about how our two cities can work together to address it.”
Similar points were made by Knight in a PAN interview last March, when she said she will be discussing the matter with Locke. At the time, when asked whether White Rock would support the building of supportive housing units for people experiencing homelessness, Knight said that the city is pressed for land and it would likely have to be in South Surrey.
Meanwhile, Joyce believes the Semiahmoo Peninsula’s lack of supports for people experiencing homelessness is political.
Now retired, Joyce has a history of working in organizations to support homeless people. She oversaw the building of housing for unhoused folks and participated in the first ever homeless count in Langley.
“All the (time) that I worked, all the struggle was trying to get the municipalities to accept there was an issue and something needed to be done,” she told PAN.
“I do think the city needs to be more proactive.
“The people are around. (Some) might be just on the other side of 16 Avenue, but it’s still seen as White Rock to us. We all shop in the same shops.”
Other residents of South Surrey and White Rock expressed their desire for housing supports to be built in the area.
“North Surrey and all those areas have so many services… but South Surrey? Nothing… Especially in White Rock, we’ve got nothing,” another woman at the forum said.
“I’ve had kids living in my house that are homeless and have nowhere to go, so I’m taking care of kids.”
She went on to say that it seems like “no one wants certain kinds of people down here.”
Concerns were also raised by a few business workers in the community, with executive director of the South Surrey & White Rock Chamber of Commerce Ritu Khanna saying that local businesses are empathetic but need support as well.
Khanna acknowledged that there are a lot of services available for people experiencing homelessness but “in those services, what we want is for there to also be support for the local business community so that they have a place to call when there’s a challenging situation, because you don’t always want to call the police,” she said.
Cerise Wilson from Options Community Service said that business workers could build communication skills to effectively respond to the unhoused people. If the situation becomes dangerous, then police should be informed, she added.
“When it comes to dealing with homeless individuals and the appearance or the disturbance that they may cause … maybe being in front of a business, urinating there or maybe setting up camp, the basic question is why are they there? And the obvious answer is, they don’t have a place to go,” Wilson said.
George Passmore from Sources said that business owners have had a hard time recently, but adds that workers should “connect before you direct.”
“They do have businesses to run and sometimes they encounter things that are very problematic… We’re looking for ways to bridge those gaps and help support the formation of genuine relationships so there can be an increased local and regional respect and understanding. That’s hard to cultivate, but there could be some possibilities for us to create those spaces where that could be possible” with the chamber and the White Rock BIA, Passmore said.
Although no date for another meeting has been set, organizers of the forum said this was the first of many to come for the community.