Audrey Siegl: Eviction notices for Oppenheimer won’t solve anything

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      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. 

      Audrey Siegl is a COPE candidate for Vancouver city council.

      Comments

      13 Comments

      OMG

      Oct 7, 2014 at 12:03pm

      One thing I've never been able to understand is why aren't the local First Nations housing homeless indigenous people? They have the land and they have the money. If the non-native (white) society can never hope to understand the issue, or we just don't care, then why do they keep trying? I think it's time to start holding the First Nations leaderships feet to the fire and ask them the same questions. Why do they just sit there and let their own people suffer? It's sickening.

      blah

      Oct 7, 2014 at 12:12pm

      What a nitwit. Perhaps she is willing to host all the campers at the park on her front lawn so the RESIDENTS of the area can have access to their park again. But I doubt it. People like this just complain, but have no real solutions. Here's a thought. Try supporting the people who pay taxes - you know - the people who will pay your salary if you get elect5ed (God forbid).

      Nathan Crompton

      Oct 7, 2014 at 12:46pm

      Thank you Audrey for this incredibly powerful piece.

      Tommy Khang

      Oct 7, 2014 at 1:12pm

      Look at the massive public outrage and calls for homelessness to end as a result of this protest... oh wait, what's this - crickets?

      Yeah. That sums up exactly how the majority of the population of Vancouver feels about this issue.

      RUK

      Oct 7, 2014 at 1:17pm

      Evicting them won't solve anything because this population was not maintaining before they took the kids' park away - why would they maintain anywhere? This is a complex issue and it has a lot to do with generational, cyclical, cultural patterns for which it is fair to invoke residential schools and colonialism, and which also has a lot to do with life choices on the part of their parents which also have deleterious effects in non-Native communities.

      In the meantime, because no one actually benefits from the theoretical blame game, let's get those shelter spaces happening and plug the people who want to be plugged in to the government and NGO service sector. And give the kids their goddamned park back.

      Supporter of this issue

      Oct 7, 2014 at 1:21pm

      I complete agree that the government is approaching this problem in an unsustainable way, and I can also completely understand that residence of the area feel that the 'camp-out' is unfair. But lets go back to why the park is supposedly being shut down; "its unsafe for women", so how safe is it for the residence to have access to the park... This factor completely supports the issue at hand; putting the main problem under the rug rather than finding solutions. I actually have volunteered at the Oppenheimer park for four years now and it is a central place to give donations/gifts to the homeless and provide a warm meal, as "tax payers" or people of Vancouver some of us are taking care of the issue of homelessness, why isn't the government?

      Hazlit

      Oct 7, 2014 at 8:59pm

      Gentrification is an unstoppable force. Try attacking capitalism instead.

      Vancouver Person

      Oct 7, 2014 at 10:18pm

      Eugentrification.

      Martin Dunphy

      Oct 7, 2014 at 10:24pm

      Tommy Khang:

      Good to see that you have even less compassion for your fellow humans than you do captive cetaceans.

      Urooba Jamal

      Oct 8, 2014 at 12:26am

      Thank you Audrey for your thoughtful piece that speaks truth to power!