McShelters: Numbers harmed today

Under capitalism and colonialism, “success” is often measured in appalling ways. Big institutions are often very efficient at causing mass harm, and very bad at responding to crises in good ways. (Especially crises that they have largely caused.) It can be confusing to sift through government PR to figure out what’s actually going on.

The government spin on their decision to rapidly clear out tent cities has been relentless. From the provincial government’s press release today about the decision to extend the COVID-related state of emergency till May 12 to the Community Housing Sector Update issued today by BC Housing (not archived online, but can subscribe on the BC Housing website), the message is that things are proceeding well towards having 360 people in two tent cities here housed with wraparound supports by May 9.

How do we make sense of what’s really happening? Yesterday we posted about what we’re hearing from people on the ground — homeless people and service providers — and what’s been said by government behind closed doors (in the meetings we are present at). Today, as government numbers get released, a look at those numbers.

Quality not quantity

Before we look at numbers, a word about quality. Even though people are scrambling hard to try to get spaces and services lined up, the May 9 deadline makes it impossible for any of this to go well. We already know there aren’t enough spaces, spaces don’t meet diverse needs, services are not yet lined up, the intake and placement process is not being done well, and that people are being dumped into rooms without basics like food and clean clothes. Nothing about this is a good quality process. And there is potentially devastating impact.

Government is well aware that isolation in motel rooms without access to safe drug supply and overdose prevention/response increases the risk of overdose death. We know also from what happened in 2016 when Super InTent City went through mass decampment and people were dumped into units that didn’t meet their needs, people’s health got worse not better. In the words of the SIC Society residents, “We are experiencing worsened physical, emotional, and mental health now that we have housing!” The motel spaces are being set up to be even more focused on control, containment, and surveillance than the previously inadequate housing SIC Society residents were put in.

We see no evidence that BC Housing is learning from the principles for housing set out by SIC Society, or having any conversations with homeless people (or service providers) about how to do this in a way that meets people’s needs, is realistic in timing, and allows enough time for staff screening/hiring/training. We also see that BC Housing and other levels of government involved have no commitment to evaluating quality in how they are placing people, or tracking how well this is working for people.

decampment AS success: bc housing numbers

In BC Housing’s email update today, they promise a daily tweet around 9:30 AM about how many people have been housed. We hesitate to link to the @BC_Housing Twitter as it’s all about quantity not quality (and even the quantity numbers are distorted, as explained below), but also think it’s important for people to have access to information on quantity.

The government’s stated targets are 15-20 people per day. In the five days from April 25 to end of day April 29, 51 people have been moved out of Topaz and Pandora (average 10 per day).

That does not mean 51 people have been securely sheltered. As we mentioned in yesterday’s post, people are reporting getting to the motel they’ve been assigned to, only to be turned away and unable to return to the tent city they just came from. In other instances people have not been able to stay because services aren’t on site yet so their needs aren’t being met, they’ve been put into a unit with people who they aren’t safe with, or they’ve been split up from a partner or other loved one in the placement arrangements.

There is no measure provided by BC Housing of how many people have actually been securely sheltered and who is getting their needs met. What they care about is how many people have been cleared out of the largest and most visible tent cities, not what happened to those people once they were cleared out.

people newly homeless as result of motel contracts

BC Housing also doesn’t include in its counts the people who have been paying to shelter in the contracted motels, who have now been turfed to make room for other homeless people.

Yesterday two local news outlets spoke with families who were given two days notice to move out, to make way for new people moving in. According to these reports, today a mother and her 17-year-old daughter living in a motel for the past three weeks (after originally sheltering in Topaz Park) and a couple living in motel since January are among multiple motel residents evicted into homelessness by Travelodge. The government says these evictions are not their fault, that BC Housing told hotel operators that nobody should be displaced to accommodate new residents moving in. But the reality is that this has happened.

People staying in motels are not considered tenants under the Residential Tenancy Act and have almost no legal protection from eviction — even if they are paying for their rooms. People whose stay is being paid through the BC Housing arrangements have even less recourse against eviction.

We are working with legal advocates to try to clarify what if anything can be done to protect more people from eviction, and how to resource resident councils in the new sites. The extreme vulnerability to eviction creates a setup for serious power abuses by motel staff and managing housing agencies. It’s clear that the entire residential tenancy system needs a serious overhaul.

In the meantime we’ll continue to follow the numbers. But more importantly we’ll continue to pay attention to what’s happening on the ground, how this is actually impacting people’s lives. We will continue to trust and believe people, and call on government to work with homeless people on real solutions.

If you want to support, we hope you will get in touch about how you can get involved.

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