Christine Boyle: A “Safer” Vancouver requires compassion, not stigma

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      The COVID pandemic, layered upon the pre-existing overdose and housing crises, has made life harder and more unstable for marginalized residents in Vancouver. What’s making things even worse is the toxic and dangerous stigma and fear-mongering being ramped up by a small but vocal minority.

      One example of this alarmist approach is recent comments made by NPA board member Christopher Wilson, who posted to an online forum encouraging neighbours to harass homeless people and to “tell them they aren’t welcome.”

      Another is the variety of social media groups that have popped up, sharing intrusive pictures and videos intended to harass and shame drug users and unhoused residents.

      A third example is the emergence of a group calling itself Safer Vancouver, which has gotten a lot of air time lately advocating against harm reduction and a health-based approach to drug addiction. It recently teamed up with Step Up, which advocates for a swath of regressive policies, including opposing the government’s tax measures to address housing affordability.

      Unfortunately, Safer Vancouver’s poor-bashing rhetoric has been amplified by a number of local elected leaders.

      Many of Safer Vancouver’s talking points come from the widely debunked broken windows theory, which alleges that visible signs of crime and disorder encourage more serious crime and disorder.

      Not only has this theory been repeatedly disproven, but its embrace by various police departments in the 1980s led to disproportionately harmful outcomes for racialized and marginalized groups. 

      Safer communities aren’t created by pushing people out. The stigma and fear-mongering from this vocal minority puts lives at risk, and gets in the way of real and meaningful solutions. Healthy and stable communities flourish when there is room for everyone—stratifying our communities based on socioeconomic status is a recipe for disaster and only serves to alienate vulnerable people.

      We are in year five of a public health emergency related to drug overdoses. The death rates are devastating. Yes, we need more treatment and recovery options, but we also need expanded access to a safe supply of drugs, and decriminalization of the simple possession of small amounts of illicit drugs. We need to do everything we can to keep people alive.

      Increased stigma also makes it harder to provide the housing, harm reduction, and treatment support that creates real public safety for all.

      Low-income people, people who use drugs, and people struggling with mental illness are more likely to be victims of crime and violence than perpetrators of it. Vancouver police data from existing temporary modular housing sites show a low number of police calls to these sites. And yet, increased stigma and fear could make it harder to build badly needed low income and supportive housing, along with detox and treatment spaces, for people to move off the streets or out of the parks. 

      I’ve heard from many parents expressing worries about the safety of their children as they play outside near tent cities. I am not insensitive to those concerns. I, too, am a parent, with two kids who spend a lot of time outdoors in our East Vancouver neighbourhood.

      I am also very aware that the person sleeping in a tent in the park, and the person having a mental health breakdown on the street, and the person self-medicating with street drugs to dull the pain of past trauma, are all someone’s child, too. Their safety matters to me, too.

      I am certain that many residents amplifying stories about homelessness and drug use mean to help in raising an alarm and to create needed pressure for solutions like housing and treatment. But advocacy that “others” people and increases stigma toward communities already at risk due to decades of policy failures and underfunding is harmful. It diminishes their dignity and safety, ultimately diminishing all of our safety.

      When we advocate for housing, safe supply, improved treatment options, increased mental health support, and more, we need to do so recognizing the humanity of others. We need to treat them like human beings, acknowledging that they are likely having a more difficult day than many of us will ever experience ourselves.

      No one chooses to struggle with homelessness, poverty or substance abuse. Further, some communities are disproportionately represented within the DTES.

      Indigenous and racialized people, people with physical and mental illnesses, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ2+ folks have been marginalized and neglected by policies, processes, and services. There are significant gaps in our support systems.

      As a city councillor, I will continue to fight hard for real and meaningful solutions, including in urgent conversations about emergency housing and COVID-19 relief for unhoused residents that council has ahead in the next week. 

      The city has been at the table, making land available for affordable housing and advocating for changes to drug policy that will save lives. This provincial government has taken more action toward addressing housing and homelessness than happened in the previous 16 years. We need more action, from every level of government, urgently.

      The world is frightening these days. We are all on edge amid rising COVID numbers and multiple overlapping crises. Let’s tone down the rhetoric and stigma, and instead lead with compassion and focus on keeping people alive.