By Caitlin Shane
Open letter to the City of Vancouver
Re: tent city evictions and the displacement of homeless people in Vancouver
Attention: Mayor Gregor Robertson, City of Vancouver, Vancouver board of parks and recreation.
I am part of the legal team that challenged the City of Vancouver’s application to remove a homeless encampment from 58 West Hastings Street earlier this month. Though the city ultimately won the order it sought, the eviction of homeless people from the space where they felt safest cannot be equated with success. Nor can the movement of exhausted, vulnerable individuals from one outdoor location to another. Despite court orders that the city make “best efforts” to house those evicted, I know of only one such person that has been provided accommodation.
Less than 24 hours after the tent city was evicted from 58 West Hastings, I was called to Thornton Park, where the board of parks and recreation was enforcing an order to remove many of those same individuals from their new location. I watched about a dozen people—some saddened, some angry, all tired—pack up their shelters and belongings and carry them down the sidewalk.
I am writing today as a plea for more meaningful government action to end the systemic and unceasing displacement of homeless people in this city.
What I saw during Friday’s eviction was a lack of acknowledgment of the circumstances of our most marginalized community and a “hands tied” approach to enforcement: tents and shelters being dismantled, personal belongings being thrown into the backs of trucks without permission, peaceful supporters being arrested, and volunteers being forced to disassemble and remove a tent with food, coffee, Narcan kits, and other harm-reduction supplies.
We have to do better. Vancouver is in the midst of a housing crisis and a health emergency. The Downtown Eastside and its residents are disproportionately impacted by both, witnessing rates of homelessness and opioid overdose far higher than any other Vancouver neighborhood.
Last week alone, Vancouver police received 494 overdose calls; Insite and pop-up safe-injection sites are relied on to save many lives every day, but their tireless work alone is still not enough. People who use drugs are warned not to use alone and to carry Narcan. Displacement and the refusal to let homeless people camp collectively means more vulnerable people are likely to use opiates alone and without safety mechanisms in place.
The rental vacancy rate in Vancouver is 0.6 percent, among the lowest in the world. Emergency shelters throughout the DTES are consistently full, with most operating over and above maximum capacity each night in attempts to limit the number of people turned away at the door. Our clients gave evidence of sleeping on chairs in overflowing facilities; others reported not being able to access shelters even with vacancies due to barriers, including disability, mental illness, addiction, and/or relationship status.
Repeatedly evicting homeless people from public spaces does nothing to mitigate significant housing and health concerns during these times: it exacerbates them.
Tent cities are by no means the solution to housing and opioid crises, but they must be accepted as a form of necessary harm reduction in dire circumstances. The evidence we relied on at the B.C. Supreme Court overwhelmingly demonstrated that unstably housed individuals rely on tent cities for safety, security, access to services, and community. At 58 West Hastings, our clients were able to protect each other, to look after one another’s belongings, to respond quickly and effectively to overdoses, and to enjoy a sense of stability and permanence that emergency overnight shelters and sleeping in doorways do not provide.
Our evidence also showed the harmful physical and psychological effects of routine displacement—a finding that has been scientifically and judicially corroborated. Courts have agreed that regular forced relocation results in the migration of people toward more isolated and more dangerous locations, which, in turn, limits their access to life-saving services and supports.
Though this city has justified the eradication of tent cities on the basis of health and safety risks, it has simultaneously refused and withdrawn the very types of services necessary to keep people safe. Washrooms, garbage collection, pest control, and outreach support are all necessary for any person to exist safely and healthily. Failure to provide these services results in untenable conditions for which tent-city occupants alone cannot be held responsible.
I urge you to reconsider your treatment of homeless people and the encampments they rely on to be safe. It is inexcusable to leave this city’s most marginalized population unsupported. It is reprehensible to enforce constitutionally suspect bylaws when people have nowhere else to go. It is mandatory to listen to the voices that have forcefully and articulately expressed a need for interim encampment support until proper and accessible housing becomes available.
Pivot Legal Society