This past weekend we watched our young nieces and nephews attempt to capture bites of ham. Each time they jabbed the plate, holding their tiny forks backwards, food was pushed further away–the attempts fruitless no matter how many times the action was repeated. With ham all over the floor, we thought of the mess often made when we attempt to solve an issue time and time again using the exact same course of action.
We saw this firsthand last week as Vancouver City Council attempted to address the systemic housing crisis with the same failed actions as their predecessors. Beginning Wednesday morning, the city and the Vancouver Police Department forcibly removed residents of the Downtown Eastside (DTES) from their community on the sidewalks of East Hastings. This is the 10th time in a decade that encampments in the DTES have been torn down. This time, the city acted with less transparency to frontline service providers. Alice Kendall, the Executive Director of the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre stated, “Had we known about this in advance, we could have pointed out concerns and at the very least, planned to make sure the women were safe.”
Police barred media, legal observers, residents, and social service workers from entering the block. This, after council sent a chilling message only a week prior to non-profits who receive city funding, warning against unwelcome critiques.
Just like in the previous ten years, displaced residents had nowhere to go. With a lack of shelter availability and a seemingly bleak number of dignified housing options prior to decampment, we were again left pondering the lack of creativity of this tired approach. The repetition of this failed approach underscores an inability to provide both compassionate and pragmatic leadership to address the complex issue of safety in the DTES.
Addressing the housing crisis requires transformative action from all levels of government. The City of Vancouver can’t fix these systemic problems alone––but its leaders have the ability to contribute to long-term solutions if they choose to make it a priority. These solutions don’t require the forced removal of residents.
What happened last week was a violation of the rights-based encampment guidelines for municipalities outlined in the National Protocol for Homeless Encampments in Canada (NPHEC). The actions that occurred were in no way “grounded in recognition of the inherent dignity of encampment residents and their human rights” (NPHEC).
Despite safety improvements cited by the City of Vancouver as the primary justification for removing residents, extensive studies indicate that forced evictions cause severe harm to encampment residents, with women and particularly Indigenous and racialized women experiencing the deepest impacts.
In the words of BC’s Human Rights Commissioner “Residents and service providers attest to dangers facing women along with issues of fire and other safety concerns. But today’s displacements do nothing more than scatter these same people. They do nothing to solve gender-based violence, toxic drug supply or homelessness.”
As Pivot Legal Society noted in their report Project Inclusion, “[Displacement] causes physical and psychological harm. It pushes people away from the services they rely upon. It means people shelter in more remote, more dangerous locations that put them farther away from emergency assistance.”
In a statement from the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre (DEW) and Battered Women’s Support Services (BWSS), Executive Director of BWSS, Angela Marie MacDougall, reminded us, “The destabilizing of the DTES today will increase violence for women in this neighborhood. Women, and particularly Indigenous women and women of colour, are already at a higher risk for violence than their male counterparts, and being unhoused is a particular risk.”
The NPHEC states, “Given the disproportionate violence faced by Indigenous women, girls, and gender diverse peoples, governments have an urgent obligation to protect these groups against all forms of violence and discrimination within homeless encampments, in a manner that is consistent with Indigenous self-determination and self-governance.” As Terry Teegee, Regional Chief of the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations, points out, destroying encampments violates Indigenous rights.
Policy levers exist at the municipal level to accelerate the construction of affordable housing, to protect renters, to ensure buildings are safe and dignified living spaces, and to empower front line organizations that have long-standing relationships with people experiencing homelessness to foster safety and ensure people can access suitable housing. The NPHEC provides guidance to mitigate many of the concerns of safety, such as fire in the encampments while working towards more permanent housing solutions. This includes meaningful engagement of encampment residents.
Our Downtown Eastside neighbours should feel safe and supported in their community. A housing-first model is the only way forward to provide a dignified approach to this dire housing crisis. Without providing viable housing solutions before the forced removal of people’s homes we will find ourselves fork in hand having this same conversation a year from now.
Trudi Goels, Co-chair of Women Transforming Cities
Joy Masuhara, Co-chair of Women Transforming Cities
Serena Jackson, Board Director of Women Transforming Cities
Mita Naidu, Board Director of Women Transforming Cities
Julia Smith, Board Director of Women Transforming Cities
Natasha Smith, Board Director of Women Transforming Cities
Alexa Traboulay, Board Director of Women Transforming Cities