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Surrey homeless camp faces eviction as activists argue its safer than shelters

Last Updated Jun 25, 2020 at 12:36 pm PST

FILE - In this 2019 photo, the residents of a homeless camp in Surrey say they don't plan to leave. (Source: NEWS 1130/Mike Lloyd)

Surrey is trying to clear out a new tent city on 135A Street, two years after claiming success in moving residents out

Residents of the new tent city say this is the result of many broken promises

Activists say the camp is much more conducive to distancing than shelter spaces

SURREY (NEWS 1130) — The latest fight over a homeless encampment in the Lower Mainland is centred on a section of Surrey’s 135A Street, which the city and the province cleared out almost exactly two years ago.

Threats of eviction have been levelled against the people living in a new tent city, which popped up in a vacant lot over the weekend.

A letter of eviction issued to the homeless camp along Surrey’s 135A Street. (Courtesy Red Braid Alliance for Decolonial Socialism)

Kristina Freberd is a long-time resident of what has been called the “Surrey Strip.”

She and others entered an empty city-owned lot, and set up camp on Saturday with about 20 tents. She says the gate of the tall chain-link fence surrounding it was unlocked.

“I think trespassing is doing something wrong. I don’t think we’re doing anything wrong,” Freberd says.

In a statement, the city says it’s “dealing with an illegal encampment” and is worried about health restrictions.

“We are concerned with the lack of physical distancing taking place on this site and the inherent risk it poses to public health during the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Rob Costanzo, general manager, corporate services for Surrey.

However, activists argue it’s easier for people to distance themselves in a tent city rather than in a shelter, and the sense of community lowers the risk of overdosing in isolation.

“Homeless people at Whalley World Tent City have been denied reasonable, safe accommodations by the City of Surrey and the Province of British Columbia,” reads a release from Red Braid Alliance for Decolonial Socialism. “Left with no other choice, they have occupied this city-owned vacant lot in order to improve their access to safety and security against the pressing and immediate health and safety dangers of daily displacement, violence, social isolation, COVID-19, and the opioid overdose crisis.”

Activists intend to argue in court that the residents’ Charter right to security trumps whatever property rights the city has.

“Why can’t we put up our tents here so that we can have shelter from the rain, get warm, have our friends around us, our family around us,” Freberd says.

This part of Surrey was cleared of homeless campers in 2017 following a joint effort by the city and BC Housing, but Freberd says the promises they made to her never materialized.

“They give you all these promises, right? Tell me what I wanted to hear, so I finally fill out an application and then when I got there, there wasn’t any of that.”

Since then, city bylaw officers have been hanging around, but haven’t moved in yet.

“It’s just a joke to them, really, which makes me feel like my situation is a joke, my struggle is a joke,” Freberd says.

Earlier this month, a homeless camp in Vancouver’s CRAB park was cleared out after an injunction was issued. Many of those residents moved to Strathcona Park, saying they had nowhere else to go.