British Columbia·In Depth

'Steal me blind': Neighbours of Surrey Strip say cleanup can't hide problems

The tents are gone and the former residents of the Surrey Strip are living in modular houses. But court documents hint at ongoing problems neighbours claim are only too real.

The Surrey Strip was dismantled amid great fanfare, but neighbours say the underlying problems remain

Ken Friesen lives a few blocks away from the former Surrey Strip. He monitors a bank of security cameras from a screen in his living room. (Jason Proctor/CBC)

Within the next two decades, Surrey is poised to overtake Vancouver as B.C.'s biggest city. The last municipal election showed a desire for change, fuelled in part by lingering concerns about public safety, the future of the RCMP and the direction of growth. This week, we asked reporter Jason Proctor to spend time at Surrey's courthouse to see how the cases heard inside reflect the challenges facing the community.

Ken Friesen's North Surrey home looks like something off a handyman antique-lover's reality TV show, with its manicured back lawn and lovingly salvaged old outdoor furniture.

But then you notice the upright screws poking out of the fence-top and the discreetly placed security cameras hanging off every available wall.

Friesen lives a few blocks from what was once called the Surrey Strip.

The strip was dismantled in dramatic fashion last summer when nearly 180 street people were offered permanent housing.

The people may have disappeared from sight, but from Friesen's perspective as a longtime North Surrey resident, little has changed.

"I go out at night working and I see hookers, drug dealers all over the place still. Even if the strip was cleaned up, there's still people living on the street in tents," he says.

"It doesn't matter what they do, you're still going to have the drug dealers and the crackheads and the pimps all over the place."

'Opportunities' for house-based drug sellers

We found Friesen standing outside his house after following a RCMP search warrant to an alleged crack house down the street from him.

The warrant, one of dozens filed in a public book at the Surrey courthouse, is typical of the investigative work police do to battle the everyday scourge of drugs and petty crime.

But it provides an opportunity to revisit the story of the Surrey Strip.

The search warrant for a drug residence was filed in November. It provides insight into the ripple effect of the cleanup of the Surrey Strip. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

The warrant was sworn last November by Const. Joshua Waltman, a member of the Surrey RCMP's North Community Response Unit.

"As of July 2018, the Surrey Strip was dismantled and numerous persons who lived on the street were provided access to shelters or modular housing," Waltman wrote. "This disruption of a regular location to buy, sell and use illicit drugs has provided opportunities to those persons selling illicit drugs out of houses."

'House Rules'

According to the warrant, crack shacks like the one down the road from Friesen have rooms with naloxone kits and "House Rules" listed on the walls.

"These rules always advise visitors on how to behave whilst inside of the residence," Waltman wrote. "Persons attending drug residences may be extending their stays for longer than 15 minutes to use and test their drugs and to decrease suspicion from neighbours and police."

But Friesen says it was still pretty obvious what was going on.

Prior to the cleanup of 135A Street, the so-called Surrey Strip was overcrowded with tents, street people and open-air drug activity. (CBC News)

"It was nothing but hookers in there, drug dealing going on, day in, day out," he says. "The people had cameras in the trees to let them know when the cops were coming. I watched one cop cut all the wires so they couldn't see them coming."

Friesen's house is about a 10 minute walk from the Surrey Strip — also known as 135A Street — which appears radically different from the way it was before the exodus.

People still come here to seek services like a supervised injection site or counseling. But the tents, carts and associated debris are gone. Street signs stop cars from lingering and the sidewalks are empty. All that's missing is a tumbleweed.

'A shift in nuisance incidents'

Surrey RCMP outreach team Sgt. Trevor Dinwoodie says police were prepared for the ripple effect of moving residents of the strip from one place to another. They increased the numbers of officers for three months after the operation.

"We anticipated that there would be a shift in nuisance incidents — the drug crime in the area," he says. "We looked to dissuade that type of behaviour in and around the area."

Sgt. Trevor Dinwoodie, left, has worked his entire policing career in Whalley. He says police anticipated the possibility of a 'shift' in nuisance incidents. (Vivian Luk/CBC)

A number of people who used to frequent the strip told us they miss the community that built around the street. They also say that the modular houses have become a hub of drug activity.

In a statement, B.C. Housing acknowledged substance abuse issues among some residents of the housing units. A home offers a new start.

"Best practices tell us that for people with substance issues, the most effective approach is one that is flexible, supportive and involves a range of care including therapeutic interventions."

'They'd still steal me blind'

Friesen's living room hosts a control unit fed by the numerous security cameras around his property. The split-screen monitor wouldn't look out of place in a jail.

He's filmed thieves, dealers and police raids, as well as a spectacular car crash into the house next door. His recordings have factored in prosecutions.

Friesen says the crack shack tenants were finally evicted a few weeks ago, after the landlord took them to the Residential Tenancy Branch — a battle detailed in the search warrant.

A screw sticks up from the fence separating Ken Friesen's house from a ravine. Friesen says he has had to employ extensive security measures to keep people off his property. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

But he says the street is still flooded with addicts looking for drugs and men looking for sex.

The ravine behind his house has also played home to a series of encampments full of needles, condoms and garbage. Police say campers may have migrated to the area from other parts of the province, the Lower Mainland and Surrey.

With the strip out of business, they park themselves elsewhere.

"I've had to put a six foot fence up in my backyard to keep out the people," Friesen says. "They'd still steal me blind. They'd be trying to live in the backyard. They'd break into the bottom of my house and they'd break into the fridge and sleep on the floor."

'A never ending story?'

Dinwoodie has worked his entire policing career in Whalley.

He understands the frustration of residents like Friesen but says the community has been remarkably understanding given the challenges police face.

"We would all be bothered by nuisance crimes in our area. We're all bothered by theft from auto. We're all bothered by somebody in the area preying upon vulnerable citizens," he says. "But when they see the bigger picture and when we develop a bigger picture, they understand and they usually support us."

Friesen says he has a nephew who died of an opioid overdose. He's not unsympathetic to the problem of addiction

But he's not optimistic that anything's going to change — even if the Surrey Strip has disappeared from sight. And he hates the idea of a new police force, because he says at least the RCMP officers who work in this area know what they're dealing with.

"There's still families here, but there's still the drug dealing going on. There's still the hookers, the johns and that," he says. "It's a never-ending story."

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