COLUMN: Losing track of our homeless population

Cities on their own don't have the resources to address the issue, writes columnist Frank Bucholtz

Homelessness is a growing problem, and it isn’t at all surprising that homeless people are finding new places to pitch their tents.

In Surrey, one of the latest locales is along rail lines.

This isn’t at all surprising. Homeless people in other communities have pitched tents along rail lines because they see such locations offering some advantages.

For one thing, there are often a number of places along rail lines that offer shelter from the elements. Few people are seen in such places during the day, unlike busy streets. Rail lines by their linear nature offer relative privacy, even in the heart of busy cities like Surrey.

Unfortunately, this is not a safe place to live – no safer than the streets themselves.

Rail lines are for the use of trains, and trains can travel along them at any time. Encounters between people and trains almost always end very badly for people.

Southern Railway of BC, which operates rail lines to the Fraser Surrey Docks and through the heart of Surrey between the New Westminster rail bridge and Cloverdale, has raised significant concerns about the number of homeless people camping along its line – particularly in the Newton area.

J. Singh Biln, director of community relations for Southern Railway, said it’s of great concern to the railway because people could get hurt.

“It’s really just the last three months that it’s really, really increased significantly,” Biln told Black Press last week. “It’s so dangerous to be near trains.”

Last fall, a 16-year-old girl lost her arm below the elbow after she and some friends decided to hop aboard a slow-moving train near the railway bridge across the Fraser. This type of life-changing incident can happen easily.

In addition, people who are walking along railway tracks can be in danger. Even a slow-moving train needs a significant amount of time to stop. If the train engineer doesn’t see someone until the last minute, it is almost certain that a person on the track will be hit – and likely killed.

If people are walking on the tracks, the engineer will sound the whistle more. If this happens late at night, that can be an annoyance to nearby residents.

Railway officials say the number of homeless people along the tracks has increased significantly in recent months, and it is possible this is happening because of ongoing efforts by the City of Surrey to move homeless people out of the Whalley area. Bylaw enforcement officers have been pressing them to move along and have been gathering some of their possessions, to the point that some say treasured items have been taken.

The homeless situation in Surrey is likely to get worse. With vacancy rates being low, and rent high, there are an increasing number of people who are very close to being unable to pay rent.

Of course, some homeless people choose that particular lifestyle. There are shelters in Surrey (with nowhere near enough beds), but not everyone is willing to go to a shelter. Various rules around what people can bring to the shelters also keep some people away.

One stumbling block is often pets. For some homeless people, their pets are their best friends – they are not going to abandon them for one night in a shelter.

The homeless problem is not a simple one to deal with, and cities in particular have few resources to make a significant dent in the number of homeless people. Help from senior levels of government is absolutely necessary.

There also needs to be a multi-agency approach to homelessness, because issues like mental health, addiction, shortage of rentals, transportation, employment and many other things are all part of why so many people are sleeping on the streets – or along the railway tracks.

Frank Bucholtz writes Wednesdays for Peace Arch News, as well as at frankbucholtz.blogspot.ca – email frank.bucholtz@gmail.com

 

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