Vancouver East NDP MP Jenny Kwan wrote the following open letter this week to the federal minister responsible for social development.
August 27, 2019
The Honourable Jean-Yves Duclos
Minister of Families, Children and Social Development House of Commons Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0A6
Open Letter: An Urgent Response to Housing and Homelessness Crisis and Overdose Crisis Is Needed
The situation for the over 2,200 people who do not have a home in Vancouver is severe. Many people have no access to daytime shelter, and hundreds of people have no overnight shelter option and are forced to sleep on the street. The situation becomes even more alarming when you consider that many of these individuals face serious health conditions, a mental illness or must manage a chronic disease, and are trying to survive with no income, or on a fixed income that does not meet basic daily needs like food and medicine.
Some people who are trying to maintain family unity find that as a couple it can be even more difficult to access shelter that does not force them to separate. Those with children are not exempted from the impact of homelessness. I have met with people whose children are in the care because they cannot secure safe, secure affordable housing. Even seniors can find themselves without a home. This is the kind of reality that hundreds of people in Vancouver East face every single day.
For some of the people, the dire situations of homelessness and insecure housing have led them to seek relative safety by residing in an encampment in Oppenheimer Park. For months, community members and volunteers have worked hard to provide some level of support to those at the encampment. With their best effort, people residing in the Park can access basic sanitation services, some food security, peer support, and a VCH-sanctioned, peer-run Overdose Prevention Site.
The people at the encampment now face an order of eviction from Oppenheimer Park. At the time of the Order, encampment residents and spokespeople estimated that there were approximately 300 people residing in the encampment.
With respect to the situation in Oppenheimer Park, it is so severe that the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing, Leilani Farha, has taken notice, and is concerned that governments are not meeting their obligations under international human rights law in violating the right to housing.
While BC Housing has attempted to set aside units through a “unit freeze” on other buildings in order to house the people at Oppenheimer Park, what that means is that other people who are homeless and in need of housing are displaced. The community feels very strongly that making people in dire need feel that they are being pitted against each other is no solution.
There is an urgent, urgent need for additional affordable housing units. In 1993, the federal government’s cancellation of the National Affordable Housing Program resulted in the loss of more than 500,000 units of affordable housing that would have otherwise been built by the non-profit and co-operative sectors. Having those units at that time, and building from that point moving forward would have put Canada in a dramatically different position today than we currently are.
Equally important is the fact that there is a desperate need for government subsidies to ensure individuals and families are not paying over 30% of their total income for rent. In order to ensure that people are successful in their housing, support also needs to be made available to those individuals. Until all these are in place, further displacing people living on the streets from where they have found relative safety and support only increases their vulnerability and does nothing to address the homelessness problem in Vancouver.
Minister, I hope you will agree that each and every one of these individuals requires a safe place to call home. Yet, as I have raised with you and with those in your Cabinet, time and time again, much of the monies that are supposed to aid those without a home will not flow immediately. In fact, over 90% of the money first promised in 2017 for housing will not begin to flow until after this next federal election, and much of that not until after 2024. That is too long to wait.
And worse, as noted by the Parliamentary Budget Officer, targeted assistance for those in the deep core of need and spending on Indigenous housing is actually reduced from that of the Harper Conservative years. I find this incredible and incompatible with the evidence of clear need in communities across the country, and mostly certainly in Vancouver East.
I further add that there is another serious crisis at hand which compounds the dire impact of lack of housing, and adds additional pressures in Vancouver East: the crisis of opioid overdose deaths and the scourge of fentanyl poisoning.
With regard to halting the opioid overdose crisis, I have called on the government to declare a National Health emergency ever since I have been elected as a Member of Parliament. As well, it is long past time to take on “Big Pharma” because the opioid overdose crisis is not limited to the DTES—as you know, it is affecting communities big and small all across the country. I believe that my constituents, and indeed all Canadians, deserve answers and accountability. Too many people have lost their lives.
In the U.S., federal authorities have already secured criminal pleas and over $600 million in fines, damages, and other costs from Purdue Pharma for misbranding OxyContin with the intent to defraud and mislead; and, just yesterday, an Oklahoma judge ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $572 million for its role in that state’s opioid crisis.
That is why I stood in the House on November 29, 2018, to call on your government to launch an investigation into the role drug companies may have played in fuelling the opioid crisis and seek meaningful compensation for the costs of addiction. This would be an important step to pressure the manufacturers to take responsibility for the lives that they have damaged.
During my time as MLA for Vancouver–Mount Pleasant in the late 1990s, the three levels of government came together to address the challenges faced by the people in the Downtown Eastside community. With each level of government in agreement to do what they could within their jurisdiction, the Vancouver Agreement was negotiated, which resulted in a number of then ground-breaking measures, most notably the adoption of the “Four Pillars” approach which led to the development of the first supervised injection facility in North America.
We thought that things were bad then but today, we are in a situation that is even worse with illicit fentanyl causing at least four overdose deaths a day in British Columbia. As early as April 2016, the BC Public Health Officer declared a public health emergency due to the climbing number of overdose deaths.
In comparison, in 2009, 428 people died of the H1N1 virus, and the government of the day declared a national health emergency. Today, with the opioid crisis, over 1,400 people are dying a year in this country, yet your government has not declared it a national health emergency.
We also still have an influx of deadly poisons being sold on the streets. People in my community are asking, when will the government respond to the call to prevent illicit, internationally traded deadly drugs from invading our communities in the most deadly way?
I am also mindful that the people who have borne the heaviest toll of all in this are Indigenous people. As Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, has pointed out, “a disproportionately high number of the vulnerable [Oppenheimer] Park residents facing the loss of a safe and stable living situation are Indigenous. Any move to forcefully evict them is callous and insensitive to the mental health, addictions, and poverty that they are battling as a result of an ongoing colonial legacy of systemic discrimination and oppression.”
I share his concern, and the concern that continued inaction on the part of the federal government to act swiftly in accordance with the urgency of the need for housing violates “the basic rights of Indigenous peoples articulated in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, as well as blatantly ignore[s] the call for safe housing that is appropriate to the cultural and economic needs of Indigenous peoples set out in the National Inquiry’s Calls for Justice.”
Not only this, but Indigenous people have been grossly over-represented in overdose events and deaths; according to the BC First Nations Health Authority, First Nations people are 5X more likely than non-First Nations to experience an overdose event, and 10% of all overdose deaths in BC involved First Nations peoples.
With these dire and life-threatening emergencies at hand, I believe that it’s time to bring all three levels of government together for a renewed Vancouver Agreement. A comprehensive and coordinated strategy between all levels of government is needed more than ever. Just as we did then by incorporating leading initiatives from other jurisdictions, we need now to learn from the successes of the Portuguese model. The strategy must also recognize the need to address the issue of poverty and the social determinants of health.
As evidenced by the experiences of people at the encampment, there is a great need for low-barrier temporary shelter space; on-demand detox/treatment facilities, and access to other health and support services; second-stage and transition housing, and accessible permanent housing.
In the interim, our community urgently requires the federal government’s support to secure housing now for those in need, while more permanent units are under construction.
I am calling on the Federal government to provide emergency funding to Vancouver so that additional modular housing units could be built to house those currently living in the encampment.
Canada must also ensure that all of these actions align with the rights outlined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and it is absolutely crucial that government act decisively on all recommendations of the National Inquiry’s Calls To Justice to ensure a supported and just future for Indigenous women and girls, and indeed for all Indigenous people.
If our community and indeed our society are not to fall ever further behind, then the urgent housing resources would arrive today.
The tools to act are in your hands.
I would close in saying that, in speaking with those who have sought shelter together in the encampment at Oppenheimer Park, many face multiple challenges. These challenges include securing adequate income, appropriate health care, adequate nutritious food, culturally appropriate support and services, and family reunification. Without a safe, secure, affordable and stable home, the hope of ever meeting these challenges can seem distant indeed. With a place to call home, the journey of healing can begin, for individuals and for the community as a whole. Let us begin today and with the very basics: a home for every one.
MP for Vancouver East
NDP Critic for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship NDP Critic for Multiculturalism
CC: Honourable François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Infrastructure and Communities MP Adam Vaughan, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development Honourable Selina Robinson, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Hon. Melanie Mark, MLA, Vancouver-Mount Pleasant Hon. Shane Simpson, MLA, Vancouver-Hastings Mayor Kennedy Stewart