A Surrey councillor said she’s disappointed that the majority of council voted in favour of changes that make it illegal to sleep or live in an RV on city streets.
Councillor Brenda Locke, who chairs the city’s Social Policy Advisory Committee, called the matter of homeless people sleeping in recreational vehicles a “non-issue.”
“It was described as preventative but it’s just not,” she told the Now-Leader Tuesday morning, after the Monday night vote in favour of the changes. “There were 27 complaints in 2019 and 25 of the 27 were mitigated with the current bylaw. It just seems to me to be mean-spirited and unnecessary and I have no idea why we are doing it.”
Councillors Steven Pettigrew, Jack Hundial, Linda Annis and Locke voted against the bylaw changes Monday, with the rest of council voting in favour.
Locke said it is also “unfortunate timing” as “the cold winter weather is coming and this will only put people at risk because we do not have alternative housing options for them.”
Locke noted “just last Saturday a trailer park in Surrey issued eviction notices to a number of people.”
Keir Macdonald is CEO of Surrey’s Phoenix Society that runs an extreme weather shelter, drug and alcohol recovery programs as well as post-treatment transitional housing.
He said this decision “doesn’t seem to be consistent with some of the work by the city to address homelessness lately,” pointing to a new shelter on King George Boulevard in Whalley that’s opening up in a matter of weeks and delays in finding permanent modular housing sites.
“This can’t do anything but make things harder for individuals struggling to get by,” he said. “What struck me is that quite often people in RVs, that’s their last line of defence.”
Councillor Elford told the Now-Leader that for him, the decision came down to “keeping the citizens of Surrey safer.”
“This is getting ahead to make sure our bylaw people have the appropriate tools,” he said. “In my sense, you get on top of an issue that could get out of hand down the road. Really it’s just tidying up the bylaw to more of what Vancouver has in place right now.”
Elford said he dealt with this file in his former role as an environmental protection officer for Vancouver.
“We would get the complaints and deal with it on a complaint-basis. Usually it would be dumping of sewage…. in certain clusters we were getting spikes in our streams,” he recalled. “I’ve seen it.”
Elford said in his experience, “they don’t have a very high regard for the environment with garbage.”
“They’re burning, they literally will set up compressors and blow diesel all the time. We want to prevent these clusters. And bylaws does a pretty darn good job dealing with them now, in terms of working with people. Just to have this extra legislation in place, to me, is important,” he said.
“I don’t want clusters developing in our community, then of course, you do have people there that have mental health issues and I’m concerns about the safety of our citizens when they’re approaching them as well. I was a little bit disappointed it got politicized so much,” Elford added.
Surrey staff on Monday night had brought forward “simplified” bylaw amendments to deal with people sleeping overnight in RVs and campers after the initial recommendations were referred back on Oct. 21. During the earlier meeting, councillors voiced concerns surrounding the impact the decision would have on vulnerable populations in the city amid an already stressed housing market.
In their Nov. 4 report to council staff recommended changes to the city’s Highway and Traffic Bylaw to prohibit the recreational vehicles from parking for more than 24 hours continuously on city streets, and to prohibit them from being used as a dwelling unit or place to sleep while parked there.
The report states that those deemed to be in contravention of the bylaw would be subject to tickets if the city is “unable to obtain voluntary compliance,” ranging from $35 to $200.
The staff report states that the amendments will allow for people to be parked on city roads for a limited amount of time, while ensuring the city “can effectively deal with complaints.”
“These individuals are not representative of homeless residents that staff typically encounter, the key difference being the type of shelter used and the fact that, in most cases, these individuals have the means to own, insure, and operate a licensed Large Vehicle in functional operational condition,” the report reads.
However in the few times staff has encountered people in the vehicles “who identified themselves as homeless,” the report states staff has worked with the people to “determine what resources they would most benefit from and to connect them to social service agencies that can support their specific needs, including housing opportunities at the various shelters or RV facilities across the City.”
Locke said she found some aspects of the report “troubling” and described the reference to shelters as “very unfortunate.”
“Shelter is not housing, a person living in an RV, statistically it shows there isn’t a lot of that happening in Surrey, but if they are that is their home at that point. A mat on the floor in a shelter is not a home. I found that insensitive,” Locke told the Now-Leader.
The debate has not only focused on the homeless, but also the unintended consequences the updated bylaw may have.
During Monday night’s meeting, Pettigrew said he finds the bylaw changes “ambiguous” and that it has “too much flexibility.”
Pettigrew said he’s had numerous RV owners contact him and “one of the concerns is whether that they’re leaving town or coming back to town, sometimes they’ll have to park outside their house for maybe a day or so while they unload and clean it out and so forth.”
“Sometimes where they end up parking their RV is further away from their home,” he added.
“If there is a regular vehicle, say an SUV and it had a utility trailer behind it, under this bylaw, then it would now qualify as that type of large vehicle and it could be fined if they parked beyond the exceeding time,” Pettigrew noted, saying bylaw language should be “tightened up a bit more.”
So far in 2019, the city has received a total of 27 complaints of RVs or campers parking on city streets, and six of those were in regard to the same vehicle. In 15 cases, the occupants and the vehicle had left the area before a bylaw officer could arrive; in 10 complaints, a bylaw officer met with the occupant of the vehicle and they voluntarily complied; and in two cases, a bylaw officer issued a ticket.
Surrey council gave the bylaw amendments third reading and final adoption would be done at a later date.
-With files from Tracy Holmes