WHALLEY — At first, people living on the street saw the Surrey Outreach Team as the enemy.
“We were the enemies, we were the thieves when we had to take stuff off the Strip,” said Dave Berar, a Surrey bylaw enforcement officer.
Surrey RCMP Sgt. Trevor Dinwoodie agreed.
“At that time the push back was pretty considerable,” said Dinwoodie, who helped put together the Surrey Outreach Team (SOT), a pilot project consisting of 12 Mounties and four bylaw officers.
“A lot of people did not want to speak to us,” Dinwoodie added. “They knew that we were the ones that would typically locate them when they had an outstanding warrant, or if they were selling or using drugs in the area, we’d be the ones to pick them up and take them to cells.
“So essentially they had no trust and respect for authority in the area. It was a day-by-day battle to work with these people and to earn their trust.”
The team’s aim is to provide a 24/7 visible presence of police, bylaws and social services to help those in need in the area. It has been in place on 135A Street since last December.
Fast forward to today, and things have evolved, Dinwoodie said.
“Once we started being able to assist some of the people and they started to realize what I was saying was actually accurate and we were out there to assist them, we started getting a large amount of them to buy into what we were doing.”
They faced another significant challenge in those early weeks, he said – the harsh weather.
“We were very fearful that we would have individuals freezing to death, particular with the fentanyl crisis, the drug itself interacts with the human body in such a different way that people might not know they were hypothermic,” Dinwoodie told the Now-Leader.
“We had to really triple our efforts at that time and really work with our partners, particularly Lookout and Fraser Health in locating places for these people to go when it was -10C. We would find people out on 135A Street here with no shoes on or a shirt.”
Dinwoodie’s eyes lit up when asked if there have been success stories.
“One actually gets me somewhat emotional,” he said.
“We had a pregnant female that was living down here with her significant other and she was five months pregnant. She came to us one evening and she told us she was ready to go. Myself and one of my partners worked extensively to find her a recovery house. One that specialized in females that have young families. They got her in that day, and found her partner a spot in another recovery facility.”
Last week, the couple came by the trailer with their newborn son, both clean and sober, said Dinwoodie.
“Then we had another young couple that were living down here, he’s a very talented young man who was a carpenter in his former life but became heavily addicted to heroin and subsequently fentanyl,” he added. “A night or two after Christmas, he came to us and said he couldn’t do it anymore. His girlfriend was heavily addicted to crystal meth and fentanyl. She went with him and we found them a place in a reputable recovery society and they both have over 90 days clean.”
The man now has his own company and employs five people, Dinwoodie said.
“Those ones are just amazing. Those are the reason you get up in the morning and come back to 135A Street.”
He said it’s been rewarding to “look at the more medical aspect of what we’re dealing with down here” though he acknowledged it can be a hard balance, coming from an enforcement background.
“But I’ve always had compassion for people,” he added. “The compassion has always been there for people so that wasn’t a difficult thing to get to but the one thing that obviously I see, and I see as a significant threat to our society, are these predators. I’m talking about people that prey upon the vulnerable. The drug dealers that aren’t addicted to any of these drugs. They’re here just to make money off human misery.
“I will do everything in my power to make sure these people are safe, they’re not being assaulted, they’re not being victimized in any way,” Dinwoodie continued.
Surrey RCMP Staff Sergeant Marty Blais, North Community Response Unit Commander, agreed.
“We’re not saying this lightly,” stressed Blais. “There are people out there who are taking advantage of these individuals and it has to stop. We’ve seen the number of overdoses that are happening and we’ve seen people struggling with addiction and to have these dealers coming here and selling with impunity any kind of products that can kill individuals is unacceptable.”
A PERMANENT TRAILER
Though the team has been operating out of a mobile command centre for the last few months, on Monday (April 10) its permanent trailer officially opened, with more space for debriefings and meetings with partner agencies.
Surrey’s Public Safety Director Terry Waterhouse said the permanent trailer will “strengthen the team element of what we’re trying to do.”
“What we’re trying to do is have a good co-ordinated team in there both from a public health and public safety perspective,” added Waterhouse. “The team nature of it allows us to understand and respond to the situation much better.”
Another big role of the team is to address issues raised by businesses and residents, said Blais, and team members meet regularly with locals.
But it hasn’t been easy.
“We live in a society where we want instant gratification, instant result,” said Blais. “This is one of the issues that we addressed with the business association. Give us some time. We have to create this rapport, we have to be able to identify the needs of these individuals and the service agencies that can provide the service. It will take months, maybe a couple of years to get all these people into the proper agencies and facilities that will address their needs. But we’re here to stay. We’re not moving.”
One nearby business, Motorcycle World, is closing its doors later this year due to the issues the social problems are bringing and others expressed continued frustration at a Downtown Surrey BIA meeting recently.
Appropriate housing has been a huge challenge, he said.
“There’s very minimal supportive housing here,” said Blais. “This is one of the issues that’s being addressed by the directors of these programs to try to free up or find locations where these individuals can move to. It’s one of the top priorities on the table. So once they’re ready to go, we have to have a place to put them.”
A LACK OF OPTIONS
A progress report on the City Centre Response Plan – Surrey’s initiative to tackle issues of addiction, mental health and homeless on 135A Street and the surrounding area – was presented to Surrey’s Public Safety Committee on Monday.
It notes “the lack of appropriate housing options in Surrey for this hard-to-house population is making it challenging to transition shelter residents into housing, and thus individuals in tents to temporary shelters.”
Given the lack of supportive housing units, it continues, many who are being transitioned out of shelters are going to private market rentals, with the support of rent supplements.
“However with Surrey’s current low vacancy rate (0.4 per cent), finding affordable rental units and landlords willing to rent to homeless people has become increasingly difficult,” it continues, and that “without support to find and maintain housing, many will not access necessary services and will end up back on the street.”
The city is working with BC Housing on a plan to enhance the type of housing stock needed, according to the city report: “We have begun a process for creating an inventory of all available housing stock so that we can place individuals in available housing and plan for creating additional, appropriate housing spaces. The Management Group is working closely with BC Housing to better address this need. It is clear that to meet our goal of removing tents from 135A Street without significant displacement requires an enhanced developmental and funding role for BC Housing in acquiring appropriate forms of housing.”
The report reveals there has been a recent increase in the number of people living on 135A Street which is said to be due to the closure of the Extreme Weather Shelters in March, improved weather conditions and difficulty obtaining housing. A total of 49 people were living on 135A Street in January, 52 in February and 66 in March, according to the report.
Meanwhile, the City Centre Response Plan is also tracking overdose activity.
There have been 361 overdoses in Surrey so far this year, with 64 per cent (232) occurring in the 135A Street area.
Despite the majority of overdoses happening there, only five per cent (two) of the city’s overdose deaths have occurred there, likely because of naloxone availability, the report says.
Surrey Outreach Team members have administered naloxone (an opioid overdose reversal drug) 21 times, and emergency shelter staff have done so 101 times this year.
“They’re just human like us, some of us have greater difficulty,” said Blais. “We’re all the same, it doesn’t matter if you have a uniform on or off. We’re here to help one another. If we can’t accomplish that goal then what are we good for?”