Last week, the City of Vancouver announced another eviction date for the 250 homeless camper at the Oppenheimer tent city. This is the third official effort by the city and parks board to evict the homeless from Oppenheimer since July. But this time they are seeking a court order, which means that anyone who stays on site goes straight to jail. Fortunately the campers and supporters won a legal deferral of the injunction last week, and this week Pivot Legal Society is in court again to stand up against the the city’s attempt to criminalize homelessness.
Instead of addressing the housing crisis, the city wants to sweep it under the rug. The eviction of Oppenheimer won’t solve anything, because to fight a fire you need water, not more kindling. You can’t fight homelessness with developer subsidies and renovictions.
The city is saying that the park needs to be shut down because it’s unsafe for women. The park, like the society we live in, was unsafe for women long before the tent city became a political issue. Whether it’s in the Downtown Eastside, or elsewhere in Vancouver, or anywhere in North America, nowhere is it safe to be a brown woman or an Indigenous woman.
Evicting Oppenheimer park is not not about safety and it’s not about finding homes for people—it’s about erasing visible homelessness before Vancouver goes to the polls in November. It’s about getting rid of one of the most glaring, political, and visible expressions of the housing crisis.
The thing that Vancouver politicians will never understand is that homelessness is about people’s lives. It’s not about electoral games and talking-points, and it’s not about who can make empty promises and flaunt their wealth for philanthropic causes. Vision Vancouver, the NPA, and the entire colonial political class, with their high wages and secure housing, will never understand the endless displacement that we face as Indigenous people.
As an Indigenous woman, and as someone who is fortunate enough to be part of the Downtown Eastside, I am a witness to the growing inequality of our city. I am aboriginal, I am a woman of colour, I’ve never made a lot of money—in short I join the ranks of what a lot of people would call poor. And now I am part of a generation that is coming to the realization that not only do the elite not represent me, they don’t care about me.
I have been part of a group of Indigenous community members standing with the campers at Oppenheimer. For over 80 days we’ve been standing in solidarity with the houseless—people who have been living in the park long before we came to stand with them. When you look at Oppenheimer and the homelessness crisis that Vancouver has been experiencing for some time, 60 percent of the campers there are First Nations. More than 30 percent of the homeless population in Vancouver is First Nations, despite our people making up a much smaller percentage of Vancouver’s population. Why is that?
Settler colonialism systematically dispossessed my people and Indigenous people across Turtle Island from their lands. We were forced into small reserves, our ancestral languages and traditions were banned. Our children were forcibly taken away from us and put into residential schools, where sexual abuse and violence was the norm. Our children continue to be apprehended to this day and put into foster care.
Indigenous women but also men are murdered and missing. Poverty has been an everyday reality of Indigenous people since we lost our land. It is only in this context that we can understand why there is a disproportionate number of Indigenous people on our street. It is not by chance, or haphazard that 30 percent of Vancouver’s homeless population is Indigenous. Colonialism is ongoing and its effects are systematic.
Evictions are the problem, not the solution
The city’s approach to the tent city has been nothing short of appalling. Since August we’ve had more than 12 meetings with the city, involving parks board, Carnegie Centre, VPD, city manager reps, and mayor reps. These representatives, with all their university education and credentials, have proposed not a single solution. They have proposed no action. They have never come to the table with a single viable offer to us except to tell us that their priority is to get us out of the park as soon as possible, so that life can carry on as normal.
Each week, sometimes twice weekly, we went to the meetings in good faith with our concrete suggestions and our good intentions for finding safe, clean and affordable homes now. The city again and again did nothing. Now, after a period of so called “negotiations,” they’re back to their original behavior of serving us eviction notices.
I would like to address the pitiful offer now being put forward by the city. Renting charter buses and shipping people to shelters is not a solution. Today there are thousands of people who are homeless and living in slum conditions in Vancouver. Even if Vision was proposing temporary shelters for all of them—which they are not—the offer would not be acceptable. Temporary shelters are neither a short-term solution nor a long-term solution. As the campers have said repeatedly, “shelters ain’t the answer.”
In addition to this inadequate number of temporary shelters, the city is saying that they have found a temporary hotel. The building, the Quality Inn, was supposed to be demolished already, but the city will now stand the hotel up on wobbly legs for maybe another two years. A portion of those 120 units will go to the campers at Oppenheimer, and the remaining units will go to those on the years-long social housing wait list. In addition to having the highest homelessness rates in Vancouver’s history, we are also experiencing record waitlists for affordable and social housing. Before it was open, the new social housing building on Howe Street recently had 1,400 on the waitlist for less than 200 rooms.
The Quality Inn will be demolished in two years. Two years does nothing except postpone this problem until after the elections. At that point, in November 2016, the housing crisis will have worsened significantly, which means that the people put there will have nowhere to go—they will simply be put back on the streets. Earlier this year B.C. Housing announced the discontinuation of all social housing construction for the entire province of B.C., and the City of Vancouver under Vision is doing nothing to compensate, counteract or push back against this brutal development.
The city has decided that the people of Oppenheimer, and the issues that they care about, don’t deserve to be heard. Their concerns don’t deserve to be addressed. Instead we should be taken away from our community and shoved into the cracks of a random crumbling building in a random neighbourhood—a neighbourhood that likely won’t welcome our presence there in the first place. Some journalists have praised the city for finding a temporary place to put some (not all) of the campers for a temporary window of time. But what is there to praise? Adding 100 units of new housing per year means nothing if the government is going to simultaneously allow for the disappearance of 1,000 units across the city each year. In this context, the Quality Inn is not a solution for either the Oppenheimer residents or the thousands of people who are being made homeless in Vancouver due to the free market.
For us who are evicted, the first steps towards a solution are clear. But yet for those with money and power, it is harder for them to see a solution. I don’t think the government recognizes the basic fact that each person who came to camp in the park lived elsewhere first. They were displaced, evicted, forced out of somewhere else. If Vision cared they would take measures to stop these evictions. But how could they ever be forced to care? The money made from evictions is the same money that funds their entire political machine. Whether they are centre-left or centre-right, colonial and neoliberal governments need to be challenged and replaced by a system that respects all people. Our communities depend on it.