This morning the provincial NDP government held a press conference to announce their plans to close down tent cities at Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue here, and Oppenheimer Park in the Downtown Eastside. This was supposed to be a gradual process, but minutes after the press conference BC Housing and VicPD came to Pandora to put a fence up and begin containment and surveillance.
In their statement the government says they are working with municipal governments to gradually “transition people living in encampments in Oppenheimer Park, Topaz Park and on Pandora Avenue into safe, temporary accommodations with wraparound supports to protect their health and safety in the overlapping COVID-19 and overdose crises”.
But other government documents show that this press conference was not truthful. And it also reveals disturbing measures that will damage people’s health and safety.
This plan has been put in place through a legal order that states people must leave those tent cities by noon on May 9 (not end of May as stated in the press conference) and after that time that no person may enter Topaz Park or a 4-block stretch of Pandora Avenue “for the purpose of camping in, residing in or occupying the area”. In the press conference Shane Simpson, Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, confirmed that while he hopes people will leave voluntarily, police will be on hand to enforce the order.
The legal order makes no commitment to ensure that everyone has adequate housing prior to enforcement of the displacement order. Setting May 9 as the deadline gives just two weeks for government to, supposedly, do 1:1 assessments with 360 people here to find out their individual needs, secure enough spaces to meet those needs, arrange for wraparound services at all these locations, help people pack up their belongings, and move into the new spaces.
Nobody left behind…oh wait
In the press conference and resulting media Q&A, the government repeatedly said this was about nobody being left behind, and that they had enough motel/hotel spaces to shelter everyone living in the tent cities. But that was not true either.
In their backgrounder BC Housing identifies that as of April 23, 2020 they had secured 324 spaces here. But 142 of those units are not new, and are already occupied (80-115 units, depending on which source you go by) or are being held for people who need medical support but not hospital. So really there are 182 new units, only half of those needed just for everyone at Topaz and Pandora.
Providing shelter only for people at the two largest tent cities completely ignores people who are living outside in other sites (there are multiple other sites here – we have identified approximately 50 tents outside Topaz and Pandora). This plan also excludes people who have been sleeping in unsafe conditions through “mats on the floor” shelters where it is also not possible to rest, have privacy, physically distance, self-isolate if sick, etc.
This plan does not address youth who are sheltering outside. BC Housing will be working with the Ministry of Children & Family Development to identify youth living in camps and “determine appropriate housing”. There are many questions about what this will mean for youth who are living with adults, in street families or partner relationships.
With people no longer allowed to “occupy” this area it is unclear how people left still sheltering outside will access survival services that have been located at Our Place and Topaz Park, including showers, bathrooms, handwashing stations, and meals. Already survival services have been terribly inadequate including almost no access to laundry or drinking water for five weeks.
is inside safer?
Everyone needs and deserves a safe place to live, and access to basics like nutritious food, drinking water, showers, laundry. Motels have the potential for people to get some of these material needs met. But they are not inherently safer for everyone, and in some ways may be more dangerous.
As Pivot Legal Society points out in their letter to the provincial government urging housing without enforcement: “The mere existence of a housing unit does not necessarily make it available to all, as many people are unable to access shelters and housing for a variety of personal and social reasons. Public health initiatives, including housing, cannot be weaponized against individuals who are unable to access them. This is particularly true as barriers will disproportionately impact already discriminated-against populations: Indigenous people who have no meaningful access to culturally safe housing, trans people who cannot safely access the shelter system, sex workers whose livelihoods and safety are adversely impacted by guest restrictions, people who use drugs and people who rely on street-based economies to generate income.”
The reality is that there is no plan for comprehensive wraparound services. We know this from the people who have already been moved to motels, who report being left without access to survival basics, mistreated by staff, or evicted. Some people who moved from outside to motels are using more substances because they have nothing to do, aren’t allowed to have any guests so are under extreme isolation, and have lost community and safety. We also know this from the four harm reduction outreach organizations we are working with, who despite being on the ground doing support every day were not consulted at all in this plan and already have been scrambling to find supports for motel residents — in some instances working unpaid or in otherwise exploitive conditions.
A document on the BC Housing website provides further disturbing details of these buildings as potentially locked down facilities similar to psych wards and prisons. No guests will be allowed in at all, and staff will be monitoring residents movements 24/7. “Every individual must follow isolation protocols and service providers will work to ensure all individuals who require self-isolation are doing so”, a level of surveillance and enforcement not inflicted on regularly-housed people.
There is no evidence that these extreme restrictions are needed to protect people’s health and well-being. People with money who live in condos or apartment buildings have been able to navigate safe physical distancing with appropriate cleaning of elevators and other common areas. On the contrary we know that the kind of isolation set out here increases risks of overdose, mental health distress, and for people living together, relationship violence.
harm is not care or love
Only the NDP could get away with the doublespeak of enacting things that are profoundly harmful while saying they are doing this out of care and love. If an openly right wing party had announced the same measures, people would rightly call it for what it is: a nightmare for the people who will be impacted.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Government didn’t have to threaten violence as part of a sheltering strategy. People could have been asked what they need, and treated with respect. People living outside could have been supported to say where would be safest for them to live, rather than being concentrated by government into a huge site and then punished for that decision.
It doesn’t have to be this hard.