Bonnie Burnside said her “heart breaks” when she sees people pushing a shopping cart filled with all their worldly belongings, with nowhere to go.
“But it also breaks my heart when I see businesses closed after they have spent all their money and decades of their lives investing in our community,” she added.
Burnside, who made a plea for support to Surrey’s Social Equity and Diversity Committee on Oct. 2, is urging city hall to better advocate supports from higher levels of government for those who are homeless, struggling with substance use or mentally ill.
She wants Surrey’s leaders to “ensure that Surrey gets its fair share of all types of housing needed for our growing population, especially the most vulnerable and those with special needs.”
“Addressing these problems will assist the businesses who have been struggling for years.”
Burnside was speaking on behalf of the Community Advisory Committee (CAC), which formed in 2012 when a winter shelter opened on 136A Street in an old beer and wine store to discuss and hopefully mitigate any issues that arose. The committee includes members of the RCMP, service providers, local businesses and property owners, and Burnside, representing the Downtown Surrey BIA where she servers as manager.
Burnside said the experience “was not well received by a number of people on the committee who walked out in protest that their concerns were not being addressed.”
Fast forward to 2018, and the CAC was given additional responsibilities when the temporary modular housing opened in the summer of 2018. Burnside said she knows how hard everyone works – service providers, businesses, government and law enforcement alike – but that it “feels like every small step forward, we take two steps back.”
She noted that businesses and residents complain about people hanging around their doors, doing drugs or drinking, with litter strewn all around.
“You don’t have to look far – just drive down King George Boulevard.”
“We have more housing but it is not adequate enough. There are just more people,” she lamented. “More housing and more staff are needed – and that means more funding is needed.”
The CAC, Burnside stressed, needs “rapid response tools to deal with challenges as they come up.” She floated the idea of a “social innovation fund that responds to changing needs and stabilizes unstable conditions until long term commitments are realized.”
Burnside acknowledged there are forthcoming projects, including a shelter and transitional facility in Green Timbers that’s been in the works for years. And, she mentioned the 250 promised units of permanent modular housing that are to replace the 160 temporary modular units set up in 2018. These are in addition to an estimated 150 shelter beds currently open in the Whalley area.
“But these units are one to two years in the future. As soon as those units are built, they will be filled and we will still have people living in shelters, in Green Timbers park, and in the backs of businesses.”
“We want a safe community for everyone,” she added. “We want a community that is not perceived to be a hangout for drug users and unsafe for customers to come and visit businesses.”
Burnside urged the city to do several things: to spread shelters all throughout Surrey not just in the Whalley area; to strongly advocate to provincial and federal governments for more housing; to come up with a plan for those who won’t be housing in the 250 modular housing units or Green Timbers shelter; and to create more spaces for people to go during the day.
“I am not trying to hide our vulnerable people, I think they should be treated with dignity,” she said.
Councillor Brenda Locke, who chairs the committee, said she appreciated how “brutally frank” Burnside had been in her presentation.
“Surrey has been standing behind the door for over a decade when it comes to asking for any kind of social infrastructure in this city. I don’t think it’s ever been a high priority for Surrey and I think that’s a shame,” Locke said. “We haven’t given that enough credence, we never have. It’s been a shame.”
Committee member Meena Cheema said it felt like the City of Vancouver was able to put more pressure on the provincial government to get more funding.
“We are almost the same size — in population — as Vancouver at this point. We’re a little bit behind but not by a large number. Resources to our city and our community, should be the same as Vancouver.”
The City of Vancouver adopted its Housing and Homelessness Strategy 2012-2021 in 2011 “as a framework to respond to council’s priority for addressing street homelessness and increasing the variety of affordable housing options within the city,” according to its website. With that, the city developed 14 new supportive housing projects across the city, resulting in 1,400 affordable rental units for homeless residents and those at risk of becoming homeless. The city provides the land and the province funds the construction.
After the presentation, the committee made a recommendation to create a housing task force, and asked that Burnside come back to another committee meeting in the fall.
Committee member Aimee Begalka said a task force would be able to compile all the information on housing into a document and report “that could then be circulated in lots of different areas.”
“I think the thing about homelessness is people are talking about it, and whether we can create a document that has actual statistics, that has some recommendations, it has a narrative that will be compelling that can be passed on to people,” Begalka said.