After years of building up a notorious reputation as a hub for criminal activity, Surrey's 135A Street began spiraling out of control in August 2016. The fentanyl crisis had hit.
Overdoses were at an all-time high and increasing reports of violence meant Surrey RCMP officers were being called to the neighbourhood several times a day.
"We couldn't just turn a blind eye to what was going on down there," says Sgt. Trevor Dinwoodie, a Surrey RCMP officer. "We realized we needed to make a concentrated effort to deal with homelessness, addiction and the marginalized people who live on 135A. So that's what we did."
Last December, the City of Surrey partnered with the RCMP to create the Surrey Outreach Team, a three-year pilot project dedicated to improving the 135A Street area and helping the people who live there. The team includes 12 RCMP officers who patrol the area 24-7, four bylaw officers who work with police during the day, and several community providers from the health, housing and social services sectors.
"We complement each other," says Martin Blais, a Surrey bylaw officer. "If we need them or they need us, we're there for each other. Our primary goal is to keep the people on 135A safe."
The outreach team works out of a command centre in a portable building on 135A Street. The small office provides a place for RCMP and bylaw officers to meet with community partners such as Emergency Health Services, Fraser Health, the Lookout Society and Surrey Mission shelters. Each morning, they discuss how many beds are available, who's using what resources, and what the priorities are for that day.
While enforcement is part of their mandate, the Surrey Outreach Team focuses on building relationships with vulnerable groups and directing them to resources.
"We work with those entrenched in street life, whether that's helping them get ID or aligning them with social services they haven't used yet. You name it, we do it," says Dinwoodie. "Our primary focus is to make a difference in these peoples' lives rather than locking them up for being addicted to drugs."
Police and bylaw officers are the first boots on the ground every morning. One of the team's major jobs is to make sure no overdoses go unnoticed.
"We do a welfare check, going from tent to tent, knocking and making sure everything is okay," says Cst. Ryan Tobin, a member of the team. "If we don't get a response, we'll check out the situation."
During one of these welfare checks a few weeks ago, a new police officer came across a homeless man who was unconscious. He called Tobin over, and the pair slashed through the thin nylon side of the tent to remove the man, who had no vital signs. He had overdosed on fentanyl.
Tobin radioed in his paramedic partners, who rushed the man to a hospital where he was put on a ventilator. He made it, but barely.
"It was a great catch because he would've been dead if we waited a couple more minutes," says Tobin.
Making a difference
This year, from January to May 2017, there were 713 drug overdoses in Surrey, 69 of which were fatal.
Although the majority of overdoses occurred in the 135A area, only five of the overdose deaths happened there.
"The frequency and amount of violence has significantly declined now that we're here," says Dinwoodie. "As a police officer, you can tell when there's hate in the air. Now we don't feel that or see that as much on 135A."
Since the Surrey Outreach Team became operational, calls for service in the 135A area have decreased by 14 per cent. To date, they've successfully re-routed more than 80 people off the streets to housing and services such as addictions counselling and mental health assistance.
Tobin credits much of the team's success to their talk-first, arrest-later attitude.
"We get to know people personally without just rolling up in a police car, solving the issue and driving away," says Tobin. "We know their names and they know our names. It's like we're the sheriffs in this Wild West area and residents know that we'll follow-up on issues."