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Surrey, White Rock business owners describe struggles with ‘undesirables’

Conversation on homelessness and addiction needs to change its focus, says advocate

During a virtual meeting on Oct. 27, Surrey and White Rock police officers heard “heartbreaking” stories from small business owners about their ongoing struggle with drug use and homeless people in and around their businesses.

Not included in the conversation, however, were advocates for homeless people, experts in mental health and addictions, or homeless people.

After conducting a presentation on business safety tips such as better store lighting and high-quality surveillance cameras, White Rock RCMP Const. Chantal Sears and Surrey RCMP Sgt. Afshin Mehdizadeh took a few questions from local business leaders during the chamber meeting.

Steve Miller, who operates the South Surrey White Spot on 16 Avenue, told officers that homelessness and drug use is an ongoing issue near his restaurant.

“We’re seeing a lot of – I know people are calling them homeless and whatnot – I’m going to go so far as to say undesirables coming into the restaurant,” Miller said.

Noting the bus loop across the street, Miller said families dining inside the restaurant are witness to drug deals and people that are under the influence of drugs and alcohol outside of the store.

“It’s not great. We have this wonderful building that is warm and dry and we’ve got food and whatnot. We’ve just come to the realization that if people are going to come in and order food, there’s a chance they’re just going to walk out without paying their bill. We do not encourage our staff to (stand) in the way of them and our guests know that, people that come into the restaurant know that,” Miller said during the meeting.

Miller said the restaurant has a washroom by the front door. While the restroom is only for paying guests and TransLink employees, a lot of “undesirables” use the facilities to use drugs, he said.

“We’ve got needles and Narcan kits and the whole nine yards. It’s not fun. We have 16-year-old hosts standing at the front that are getting spat at because people don’t want to wear masks and people don’t want to show vaccine cards. It’s such a difficult time right now because we are policing things we didn’t sign up for,” Miller said.

The Semiahmoo Shopping Centre parkade has been somewhat of a refuge for people to use drugs, he added.

“I get it, it’s warm, it’s dry. But they have their area to participate in drugs and whatnot and unfortunately we have to walk through it sometimes to get to cars,” he said, adding that younger staff members are often accompanied to their vehicles.

White Rock’s WorldServe Thrift Store manager Teresa Lattery also voiced concerns regarding “riffraff” coming into her store.

“It’s very unnerving. It’s really upsetting for my staff. We’ve just seen a real big increase in, I hesitate to say homeless population… It’s difficult to say. Dark, twitchy, obviously high, alcohol is definitely involved. You can see this behaviour. Just really difficult situations when they come into the store and how to manage that,” Lattery said.

Lattery said store employees experience rude behaviour, “disgusting” words, confrontations with anti-maskers and theft.

Mehdizadeh said he was saddened to hear the stories, and he, along with Sears, stressed the importance of making a police complaint every time there’s an issue.

“If you have people in your business that you don’t want, especially if they are in your business, politely ask them to leave,” Mehdizadeh said. “If they refuse, fine, call us and we’ll be more than happy to come and deal with the situation and remove them from the premises.”

Sears said it’s critically important that business owners not only call RCMP, but provide statements if a crime was committed.

SEE ALSO: Majority of White Rock’s homeless more connected to Surrey: RCMP report

“To actually get some action we need people to provide statements so that we can forward a charge to Crown Counsel and get some conditions on these people that say they are not allowed to attend your business,” Sears said. “Unless we have those statements, it’s really difficult to do.”

Wednesday’s virtual meeting also included representatives from CrimeStoppers, who explained how the service works and promoted the importance of reporting crime.

Street view

South Surrey’s Shawn Gower has been living on the streets after a string of traumatic events put him in a tailspin. Once gainfully employed as a construction worker for 15 years, Gower suffered a broken back after a vehicle collision. He also suffered the loss of his son, and went through a divorce.

Gower now sustains himself by panhandling near a busy South Surrey intersection and he lives in a makeshift camp in a nearby forested area.

If business owners don’t want homeless people hanging around inside or outside of their store, all they need to do is politely ask, he said.

“Just ask us. We’re normal humans,” Gower said. “I don’t know what they are afraid of. We’re just human beings. We’re just maybe a bit dirtier, have a little bit less money… we’re all normal.

“We’re not going to jump out and lash out at you.”

That said, Gower said some homeless people do have a “chip on their shoulder,” but that might be because they were mistreated by people in the working class.

An example of that, Gower said, is that he was once approached by a man who gave him food or drink – he can’t remember which. The consumable, he said, was laced with rat poison and he died for 18 minutes before being revived. Gower said the individual indiscriminately targeted homeless people to get revenge after his vehicle was broken into, presumably by a homeless person.

“People don’t realize at the end of the day, we don’t get a choice of where we eat at. Most of the time, if we’re hungry, we have to eat out of the garbage can. We have to eat what they throw out. If they think they are having a bad day, try having one of our bad days,” Gower said.

“I just wish some people would just stop and ask. If they got a problem with us, just voice it to us. You don’t have to call the cops because you just wasted their time. The cops come to us and they say ‘We know, we know… It’s just people being over protective, move on.’”

‘Wrong conversations’

Surrey Urban Mission Society executive director Michael Musgrove said he understands the perspective of both the non-housed population and business owners. It’s a topic that has been discussed for years, he said.

“I understand why we’re having these conversations, (but) they’re the wrong conversations,” Musgrove said.

The focus should be on how society can move to treating addiction as an illness, rather than a criminal issue, he said.

“If we could take all of it out of the hands of the criminal world and move it into the hands of people that can help compassionately with direction, care, and actually speak to the people.”

Musgrove said he sympathizes with business owners that have to deal with people using drugs in their washroom or hanging out near storefronts.

“I understand the frustrations, but I also see the pain and struggles of the people that are dealing with problematic drug use and all of the mental health and the other issues that kind of seem to go along with it,” he said.

Moving the homeless population from one area to another, he said, does little to address the underlying issue in that many of the people are dealing with an illness.

“The other thing that is lost, the people that are sitting in front of the stores are people. Just as much as the person is who owns the store. They have a perspective and value in life that’s worth hearing. They have gifts, they have beauty and all of these things that we miss because they are sick.”

“The bigger problem is, perhaps, we’ve stopped seeing others as fellow humans that are struggling through life, and instead we see how they are a barrier to us being able to do what we need to do. And that falls on both sides of this.”

Musgrove said there’s a “dividing line” between the people who make the decisions and have the meetings, and the people who are affected by the decisions and are viewed as a problem. He said his organization would “absolutely love” to be involved in helping facilitate an approach that brings both sides together.

“We’ve taken a top-down approach to this. You have a meeting with the Chamber of Commerce and police, where is the person that actually may have the solution?

“Maybe it’s the person who does sit in front of the storefront?

“Maybe it’s the person that does use drugs in the bathroom? These are difficult conversations to have.

“Talk to them. I do know that when mental health comes into the picture or when someone is feeling very sick because they haven’t been able to access the drugs they are dependent on, it can be a fairly unreasonable conversation. I get that.”

Musgrove said South Surrey and White Rock area could be an example, of how society can do a better job of managing both sides of the issue.

He noted that over the last six to eight years, he saw tremendous growth in the Surrey RCMP and other organizations in how they are treating the homeless population.

It seems, Musgrove said, Surrey is moving in a positive direction.

“I would not partner up with a police force that was heavy-handed and brutal to the people I love, I just wouldn’t, and we partner with (Surrey RCMP),” Musgrove said.

“And bylaw, too. I cannot believe how far bylaw has come.”

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About the Author: Aaron Hinks

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