KPU Crim Profs Study Addiction, Homelessness, Outreach on the Surrey Strip

Michael Ma and Mike Larsen are hoping to better understand the experience of those living on 135a Street

Homeless residents’ tents and belongings are placed temporarily in the Surrey Legion parking lot while city crews prepare the Strip for a weekly cleaning. (Joseph Keller)

Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Social Justice Centre (SJC) is at work to better understand the issues of homelessness and addiction in Surrey, particularly on 135a Street, where inequality in the city is most visible.

KPU criminology professors Michael Ma and Mike Larsen have set out to understand the circumstances of people living on 135a—colloquially known as the Strip—and the strategy employed by the city to provide outreach as part of their involvement with the SJC.

Ma is particularly interested in collecting empirical evidence of what he believes “is already well established anecdotally” within this community: homelessness, addiction, mental illness, housing, and entering into recovery.

The Strip has long been a site where Surrey’s homeless have set up camp. In January 2017, the City of Surrey began a pilot project called the Surrey Outreach team consisting of 12 RCMP officers and four city bylaw officers. Along with organizations such as Fraser Health and BC Housing, they were dedicated to providing services in the area around 135a.

Last year, Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner told the media that the goal of the $288,000 program is to “provide 24/7 visible presence of police, bylaws, and social services to help those in need, increase the public safety and the protection of property of area businesses and residents, and target those who are preying on the vulnerable in the area.”

Ma stresses that the purpose of his study is not to ask what the City of Surrey is doing wrong in regards to outreach but to understand the realities of substance use and homelessness there. He developed a 41-question survey that was vetted by various experts —such as former B.C. Chief Medical Officer Perry Kendall and officials from Fraser Health—to reach that goal.

A board memorializing people who have died while homeless on the Strip in maintained by residents on 135A Street. (Joseph Keller)

People living on the Strip were given $10 to spend 10-15 minutes answering questions related to their living situations, drug use, overdose history, desire for treatment, and willingness to use social housing programs under various circumstances. So far, 80 people have been surveyed, and 200 more will have participated by the time the survey concludes.

Ma says that the preliminary results of his survey don’t reveal anything surprising about people living with homelessness and addiction in Surrey, but they do provide hard data on issues that have been understood unofficially. For example, the survey shows that about 80 per cent of people on the Strip have experienced overdoses, with each of them having overdosed an average of five times.

“I think, anecdotally, we know people overdose a lot but to actually see the numbers is a bit shocking,” says Ma. “I think that’s quite sobering when you look at the people who are telling you that they have overdosed again and again and again … even for someone who knows a lot about the topic.”

Ma’s survey found that a very large number of the people living on the Strip want to go into detox treatment. It also found that the majority of people living with addiction issues there had previously been in some form of treatment. Ma says that this information is relevant because it shows that providing these people with resources to get on the path to recovery is “low hanging fruit.”

As President of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, KPU criminology professor Mike Larsen was asked by KPU’s Social Justice Centre to help acquire information about the City Centre Response Plan via a freedom of information request.

Larsen and the SJC requested background information on how the city’s plan came together, how much is being spent on these issues, and how the program’s success is being measured. According to Larsen, all of this information should be made readily available by the city.

“There’s nothing in these documents that is shocking or scandalous or revealing any kind of wrongdoing,” says Larsen. “This is basically information about how the city is partnering with a variety of different bodies to provide services … but the public ought to know what kind of funds are being committed and with what objectives.”

Larsen says that the most surprising revelation from his FOI request was how extensive the surveillance is on 135a. While no personal information was disclosed in the documents provided, the information acquired from Larsen’s request reveals what he describes as a “pretty comprehensive plan to monitor people who are homeless in the Surrey Strip area.” The response to the FOI request suggests that city is keeping close tabs on the residents of 135a for the purposes of housing and safety.

Also surprising, according to Larsen, is how often BC Housing and various shelter organizations monitor those who use their services. A housing tracking table documents how close each service recipient is to receiving stable housing. This has made Larsen question who exactly is able to access this information, and he plans to send a separate FOI request to find out.

“Because it’s an unhoused population, because it’s a drug-using population, there’s this assumption that government institutions are going to watch, monitor, and track and gather information about them, but of course if you’re living on the street you have the same privacy rights as anybody else,” says Larsen. “Anytime you start seeing databases being made about people and tracing their activities and so on that are accessible outside of the usual channels, that’s cause for concern for me as a privacy advocate.”

“I’m not saying anything untoward is happening but I do want to know a lot more.”

The Surrey Outreach Team pilot project will conclude in January 2019, after operating for two years. From there, it will be up to the city to decide if it has been successful enough to be continued.

While reports from the FOI request show data on arrests made in the area and other relevant information, Ma and Larsen both want to know more about how the city is tracking the pilot program’s success.

Ma says that, at the end of the Outreach Team trial, city officials will need to ask themselves hard questions.

“What have been the outcomes?” asks Ma. “Have they reduced homelessness on 135a? Have they reduced problematic substance use? Have they improved people’s lives in terms of helping them get into detox and treatment? Can they show those numbers? How many contacts have they had with people with problematic substance use? And how many of those contacts have translated into people entering into detox and successfully transitioning into more complicated long-term treatment?”

Surrey City councilor Vera LaFranc declined to be interviewed by The Runner for this article and has expressed concern over the nature of Dr. Ma’s survey, citing privacy issues on behalf of the residents of 135a street.