Why do we care more about peacocks than humans? Reflections on the displacement of the “Surrey Strip”

(Photo credit: CTV Vancouver & Meenakshi Mannoe | Peacock seen in Surrey's Sullivan Heights and Surrey RCMP during the clearing of Surrey Strip | June 2018)

The plight of Surrey’s peacocks is raising eyebrows and attracting headlines and sympathy, while homeless humans and their belongings are being power washed away to clear a path for the city’s urban renewal.

Two weeks ago, a stretch of tents serving as home and refuge for homeless residents along 135A Street in Surrey, the “Surrey Strip, was dismantled through the concerted efforts of the City of Surrey, RCMP, Fraser Health Authority, BC Housing, and Lookout Society personnel. City and BC Housing staff said that the residents sheltering there had three days to move off the Strip. Some had been offered modular housing units; others, shelter beds.

The province’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing advised that the offerings were based on “assessed need.” The Ministry did not clarify who did the assessment nor what the needs were. Over the course of three days, residents of 135A were moved off the Strip at the behest of the Surrey Outreach Team after years of increasing frustration about the situation in Whalley.

(City staff clearing belongings of people who are homeless along Surrey Strip | June 2018)

Since 2016, the City of Surrey responded to concerns, primarily originating from housed community members and business owners, by creating the City Centre Response Plan. This Plan included the creation of the Surrey Outreach Team, comprised of RCMP and bylaw staff deployed as an “on the ground manifestation of the four priorities of the Public Safety Strategy – Ensure Safe Places, Prevent and Reduce Crime, Build Community Capacity and Support Vulnerable Persons.”

Despite widespread acknowledgment that people become homeless for many reasons, including a lack of affordable housing, inadequate health services, or unsuitable shelter options, the City mobilized law enforcement to deal with the issue. Pivot staff who have spoken with residents heard reports of constant police surveillance, harassment by bylaw officials, requirements to dismantle tents and tarps daily, weekly displacement for street cleaning, seizure of personal belongings, and a general climate of instability.

(Surrey RCMP look on as belongings and tents of homeless residents are thrown away | June 2018)

Over many years, 135A in particular and the Whalley region became increasingly notorious as an epicentre of “crime, poverty, and homelessness.” At its peak, the Surrey Strip housed around 300 people and stretched four blocks. The area became a flashpoint for bitter debate and acrimony between people who were homeless and their advocates, and business owners and housed residents who lacked compassion and a basic understanding of how poverty manifests.

To the people who lived there—because of no other viable alternatives—it was home. Then, in the course of a week, they were told they had no option but to move along. Yes, some were offered spots in the new modular housing units, but many were referred to existing shelter accommodations. People had to uproot their lives in 72 hours and make life-changing decisions about their next moves while packing up all their possessions.

(City staff clearing belongings of people who are homeless along Surrey Strip | June 2018)

While an increase in supportive housing units is a welcome first step for many, the units are far too few to house everyone who was living on the Surrey strip. Insufficient and institutional housing and emergency shelters are not the ultimate, aspirational goals for people experiencing homelessness. Shelters are not housing—they are temporary overnight mats or beds, often in overcrowded, stressful, and inaccessible conditions.

Supportive housing programs often come with conditions, such as no pets, strict curfews, and prohibitions on having friends visit, rendering them inaccessible for many people experiencing long-term homelessness. It is precisely the individuals who cannot avail themselves of temporary shelter or supportive housing who require the most urgent and accessible forms of housing.

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When my colleague and I spoke with residents of 135A, we learned that some had been offered housing, but many of the people we spoke with were offered temporary shelter beds. These were the people who were most upset that day. They have been telling workers that shelter accommodations are inadequate for years, but when it was time to clear the Strip, many were not given any new options.

(Surrey RCMP look on as belongings and tents of homeless residents are thrown away | June 2018)

The City’s eviction of the Surrey Strip coincides with another issue deeply affecting the City’s residents: peacocks and peahens that have run afoul of the Sullivan Heights community. Peafowl have called the area home since 2006; and since 2010, residents have been complaining about noise, excrement, and property damage. For eight years, the City did not directly intervene. In May, the problem hit the news when a local resident cut down a tree in his yard that served as a roosting spot for the birds, effectively evicting the peafowl.

The resident was fined $1,000 for doing so absent a permit. The City of Surrey went on to recognize that the presence of the peafowl was a “complex and divisive issue” and the Peafowl Relocation Action Plan further identifies the following core principles: “humane capture and handling of peafowl; safety of area residents and pets; and immediate sustained action.” The City of Surrey has retained a certified biologist to oversee the Peafowl Relocation Action Plan, which they state may require a long-term commitment by the City.

(Surrey RCMP look on as belongings and tents of homeless residents are thrown away | June 2018)

The debate around peafowl and residents of the Surrey Strip share commonalities, the main one being, that the “offending parties” are characterized as a public nuisance negatively impacting safety and property. The peacocks, however, are afforded more liberties and dignity in the course of their daily lives; so much so that in 2010, when the City sent a local expert to trap the birds and conduct a site evaluation, local residents intervened, and their actions won the birds a four-year reprieve.

No one wants to see the birds harmed, and we need some healing in this community.”

Surrey’s new Peafowl Relocation Action Plan involves fining residents who feed or house the birds. Cindy Daglish, trustee candidate for the Surrey schoolboard expressed her concerns about the strategy, stating “the plan talks about getting the peacocks out of the neighbourhood, but not where they will go. And that’s important for all in this community. No one wants to see the birds harmed, and we need some healing in this community.”

While peafowl merit compassion and humane relocation, unhoused people in Surrey are treated as pariahs. In the comments section of a local newspaper, one reader contends that “the majority of the people I've met who are in the position they are in are there as a result of poor choices or simply because they are not willing to put in the hard work or effort.”

This new society is becoming a bunch of freeloaders looking for a handout and pissed off because the government sold them out by allowing too much foreign money in.”

With respect to Ms. Daglish's comments on healing for a community divided by the health and safety of peacocks, what possible societal fissures could their presence have occasioned? Where, in a general sense from others, was this care and consideration for the actual human beings displaced from the Strip last week? People who had been corralled into 135A and subject to all manner of indignity for years. Then, in a matter of days they were told to pack up, move along, and essentially never return.

(The Surrey Strip along 135A Street | June 2018)

When Mayor Linda Hepner was asked what would happen if residents of the Strip refused to move from their tents, she said, “If housing is available and they won’t leave, then we’ll do something that ensures that they do.” Her comments obscure the shortcomings of the “housing” that is available to former residents of 135A. Many were offered a temporary shelter bed that does little to address the root causes of homelessness, such as poverty and addiction.

Former residents of 135A need access to affordable, permanent housing that is “home.” The intransigence of Surrey’s model of crisis response has effectively criminalized homeless people who are subject to a regime of bylaw enforcement wherever they go.

Though the peafowl’s run in Sullivan Heights is nearing an end, for many years they were embraced as friends. Actual human beings surviving along the Surrey Strip subject to all manner of discrimination and suffering were afforded no such dignity. They were cast out as criminals. Surrey has become a city where the eviction of peacocks garners more compassion than the displacement of homeless people. This is a sad statement that should force a sober moment of self-reflection from all of us.