A broken fence at the end of the driveway and a muddied warning sign hint at trouble on the South Surrey property.
A short walk in any direction into the once-pristine urban forest, and evidence representing all manner of societal disarray – from neglect and disregard for others’ property, to homelessness – abounds.
About 40 feet in, bags of garbage surround an abandoned riding mower, their contents – including clothing, empty bottles, party decorations and sundry other items – strewn in an ever-growing circle by those who’ve taken advantage of unfettered access.
As shocking as the sight may be, those keeping tabs in the city say it’s barely scratching the surface of what the 30-plus-acre site’s dense brush and trees manage to conceal from most passersby along 164 Street.
“This is nothing,” Martin Blais, manager of the City of Surrey’s bylaw department’s Community Enforcement Team, says Friday during a morning visit.
“We already cleaned this property up a while ago, and it started up again.”
A short walk to the northwest leads to one seemingly abandoned camp site, complete with tarp, tent, scattered debris and a pair of City of Surrey garbage bins.
There’s even a patch of decomposing human feces.
“Watch you don’t step there,” bylaw officer Andrew Nolan – one of 16 CET members – says, pointing to the crude toilet.
The threat of stepping in human feces isn’t the only concern, Nolan notes as he manoeuvres around the site, ducking branches and stepping over discarded wiring, garden tools and more.
“Sometimes, there’s needles,” he says.
Blais and Nolan met Peace Arch News at the site by request, after PAN fielded concerns about homeless encampments from an area resident.
Sheilen Raja told PAN last week that he was alerted to the issue in early November, after receiving a letter from the City of Surrey’s bylaw department asking him to remedy his unsightly property, or the city would do it and bill him for the cost.
“At the time of our inspection, there was a homeless encampment with evidence of a large fire, extensive amount of discarded wire, clothing, shopping cars (sic), bike parts, tarps, wood debris, and other litter, garbage, and miscellaneous waste on the Property, making it unsightly,” the letter states.
“Five or six” property owners received the same letter, Blais said, noting the properties in question are in a “holding pattern” for development.
Raja said when he contacted Surrey bylaws to question the situation, noting his yard was “very clean,” an officer pointed him to the back of his five-acre property. Accessing the area through adjacent undeveloped land, Raja said what he was shown was “absolutely shocking.”
In addition to finding one man camping on his land, Raja said he counted “four or five” other homeless camps in the area.
The unsanctioned guests “made a mess of that whole area back there,” he said.
“There’s probably about 11 or 12 shopping carts, garbage cans, trees that have been put on fire,” he said.
The man on Raja’s land told him he’d been camping at the site for six months, Raja said.
Raja – who said he has been monitoring his property weekly ever since being alerted to the problem, reported the matter to police on Jan. 5 and enlisted help to get a better handle on it last Saturday – is certain the issue stems from steps taken last summer by the city and police to clean up the homeless encampment on Whalley’s 135A Street. In that effort, 160 temporary modular housing units were created.
“They come across as though Whalley is all cleaned up and it’s all hunky-dory,” Raja said, referring to RCMP comments lauding the success of the effort that he heard recently on a news-radio program.
“It didn’t really solve the homeless problem, it just moved it.”
Blais and Nolan, however, disagree that the homeless in South Surrey were displaced from the north.
“What I’ve noticed is the people who are in South Surrey… aren’t necessarily connected to what happened in Whalley,” Nolan said. The issue has been on the rise throughout the city for the past 10 years, he said, and “there’s other reasons why they’ve ended up here, perhaps.”
“They did not migrate so far down,” Blais agreed.
As distressing as the state of the land in the 2800-block of 164 Street is, it’s “not out of the ordinary,” Nolan noted. There are many similar “mini-forest chunks” that provide those who are looking for it with similar hidden-shelter and illegal-dumping opportunities.
Nolan said officers take steps to connect any homeless people they come across with the services they need to get off the street. And, the city is willing to work with property owners who are trying to tackle the problem that continues to rear its head in their backyards, he said.
What they can’t do is simply ignore it.
“We do have a responsibility to this community to make sure that it’s safe,” Blais said of officers’ not-always-well-received persistence. “People have to take responsibility for the land they own.”
Blais noted one property owner at another Surrey site, near 176 Street and 66 Avenue, will see the city’s tab for cleanup of his property added to his tax bill. That three-day effort – which began Friday – is expected to cost around $75,000.
In contrast, Nolan praised steps taken by one of the South Surrey owners connected to the 164 Street acreage to clean up their property, describing the clearing and debris removal to date as a “level of progress” that warrants some leniency on the five-day deadline that’s noted in the unsightly-property letters.
Blais and Nolan said there are simple steps land owners can take to reduce the advantage people can take of their undeveloped properties. One that would help this particular site, they said, would be the installation of cement blocks across the driveway entrance, to block those who are driving garbage in. Regular monitoring and prompt addressing of any issues is also important, they said.
The general public can also play a role, by reporting descriptions of vehicles involved in illegal dumping to the city’s 24-hour call centre, 604-591-4370.
A mess like the one surrounding the abandoned mower would net a minimum $1,000 fine, Nolan said.