On Tuesday March 17, the provincial government declared a public health emergency due to COVID-19 and shelters and other survival services started closing down or reducing spaces. The following day, a provincial state of emergency was declared, giving the government power to remove or restrict people from anywhere in ‘bc’ and do other things. On March 20, BC Housing, Island Health, municipal government, and the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness (GVCEH) issued a press release saying they are working on emergency response plan for people who are living outside.
Since that time we’ve seen incredible resilience and power in the street community as people find ways to survive situations even more intense and gruelling than usual. And we’ve seen community mobilize solidarity in beautiful ways, both in peers organizing intensive outreach and also housed supporters pitching in money and labour.
We’ve also seen a cascading series of disastrous government actions, ranging from incompetent inaction to gross human rights violations. The promised emergency response plan has been a train wreck, with government failing to uphold its obligations to provide survival basics like shelter, food, water, handwashing facilities, showers, laundry, or fire safety. Different levels of government continue to bicker with each other about who is responsible to do what, instead of working with homeless people, community supporters, and service providers to do what needs to be done.
The recently released United Nations National Protocol for Homeless Encampments in Canada requires that governments recognize people living in tent cities as people who have rights, that there be meaningful engagement and effective participation of homeless encampment residents in decision-making, and that such engagement “should begin early, be ongoing, and proceed under the principle that residents are experts in their own lives”. Yet no level of government has talked to people living outside about what they want and need. The UN also set out two earlier global directives, COVID-19 Guidance note on Protecting Residents of Informal Settlements and COVID-19 Guidance note on Protecting Those Living in Homelessness, that apply more broadly; governments aren’t complying with these either.
Instead, government is doing what it always does: pour resources into containing, controlling, and surveilling homeless people. Sometimes they do this through clearly awful means like cops and fences, and sometimes they do it through service provision that is, in its own way, about social control.
topaz and pandora: hurry up and wait, and in the meantime CAGING PEOPLE IN
On April 25 the provincial government issued an eviction order decreeing that people living at Topaz Park and along Pandora Avenue (as well as people at a tent city at Oppenheimer Park, on the mainland) have to leave by May 9 — even though there’s nowhere else to go. BC Housing tweeted today that as of May 4, 92 out of 360 people living at Pandora/Topaz have been moved out of the camps. It is our understanding that almost all the existing secured spaces are now full so nothing more available till after May 9, when an additional 178-195 spaces secured by BC Housing at four sites will gradually become available (still not enough for the 270 people who were at Pandora and Topaz as of April 25). Additionally there are concerns that the sheltering options already secured don’t work for many people and aren’t safe for everyone. Only one of the new sites is a motel with individual rooms, the other three are group shelters where people will have little to no privacy.
It’s obvious that BC Housing won’t meet the May 9 deadline, and we do not at this point expect that people will be forcibly removed from Topaz or Pandora. At a meeting today BC Housing confirmed that as long as things continue to move as quickly as possible, there will be no police-enforced displacement, and they said they would issue a written statement about that this afternoon. But it’s incredibly cruel to have put people under so much uncertainty and the threat of forcible eviction, and to have needlessly rushed to remove people rather than taking the time to work with them on how they want things set up. It’s also been completely exhausting for frontline workers who have already been working in government-imposed chaos for the past 7 weeks. We are working with other organizations on trying to get the provincial government to cancel the decampment order, or at the very least substantially extend the timeline so people have more security and certainty rather than just an open-ended threat of looming forced eviction if at some point the BC government decides things aren’t moving fast enough.
In the meantime, the “decampment” process continues and includes government contractors destroying people’s tents and belongings if they have been deemed to have left Pandora/Topaz. In one instance someone’s wallet, welfare cheque, and pictures of their children were thrown out. The contractors in charge of this “decampment” are the same ones who BC Housing hired to mistreat people living in Super InTent City in 2016. People in Poverty Kills were present for that process and witnessed the same human rights violations that are happening now. We know from conversations with people in other cities that this is the norm not the exception.
BC Housing hasn’t been able to line up enough sheltering spaces, let alone long-term housing; but they sure do know how to get some things done. Minutes after the announcement, government contractors started putting up fencing to “reclaim” spaces. This is standard provincial government strategy and has used many times before on tent cities here. People still at Pandora and Topaz are under constant surveillance so their tent spot can be fenced off if they leave.
The government is well aware that this approach is dehumanizing, with people saying they feel like animals in a zoo. Being fenced in is traumatizing for people who have experienced confinement, and creates health hazards as people are less able to leave quickly in case of fire or get help in case of overdose or other medical emergency.
At a meeting with BC Housing a few days ago, the Indigenous Harm Reduction Team pointed out that fences and borders are weapons of colonialism, and that BC Housing’s actions are like internment camps and the reservation / pass system. After forcing Indigenous people into tiny areas, government and police collaborated to control Indigenous people’s movements in many ways including more than 60 years of the pass system implemented in 1885. Under this system any First Nations person living on-reserve across western ‘canada’ who wanted to leave their community, for any reason, would first have to get a pass approved by the reserve’s ‘Indian agent’. This pass had to be carried at all times, stating the purpose of the leave and length of time permitted to be off-reserve. People who were caught without a pass were either imprisoned or returned to the reservation. The colonial government imposed this to try to break Indigenous people’s relations, under the guise of protecting settler security following the Métis uprising at Batoche led by Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, and Cree resistance in nearby areas.
BC Housing’s response: “Thank you for your feedback, we’ll take that to management” followed by a passive-aggressive comment that suggestions should be “constructive”. The fences remain up.
People living at Topaz will be working with AVI staff and our network to do a blog post here this weekend…stay tuned!
people living outside in other locations
There are multiple locations other than Pandora and Topaz where people are sheltering. People are living in other parks, alleys/doorways, vehicles, and abandoned buildings. All of these people have been totally ignored by the government decision to offer new shelter spaces only to people at Pandora/Topaz. People in this situation are now 7 weeks outside without needed access to bathrooms, food, drinking water, handwashing, showers, laundry, and ways to communicate with loved ones. We have been repeatedly asking government and service providers what they are doing to check in with people at other sites and who is working on a plan about basic survival necessities required under the UN National Protocol for Homeless Encampments in Canada. Thus far: silence.
People living at one site, MEEGAN (Beaconhill park), now have a Twitter account. Humans of Beacon Hill Park is amazing and includes video, podcasts, and text commentary direct from people sheltering at the park. It’s so important that people in the street community be heard from directly not just through supporters, and we are really happy that people autonomously got this going. (We don’t want to take credit for someone else’s work, so to be clear on our role: we are working with the Indigenous Harm Reduction Team and other people doing outreach to connect with the folks at MEEGAN, and also talking with their housed supporters, to find out if there are things they want us to do to boost community solidarity.)
THE SITUATION FOR PEOPLE IN MOTELS / HOTELS
BC Housing talks about how many people they’ve moved, but not the quality of life for people who have been moved. But we know from people who are contacting outreach workers looking for help that the ~170 people who have already been placed inside in motels/hotels (~110 before the April 25 announcement and 62 since) are not getting their needs met either.
People are not being treated respectfully by motel/hotel and housing agency staff and are subjected to ridiculous and invasive rules like “tidiness” checks on their rooms and no-guest policies. Some people have been placed in units with people who they can’t safely live with, including survivors of violence being placed in rooms near the people who assaulted them. There’s no storage for bikes, people are only allowed to bring 2 tote bins into their rooms, and their belongings are being searched before moving in. People have no tenancy protection and a number of people who thought they had secure shelter at motels have already been turned away or evicted. In some instances hotel/motel management aren’t onside with having harm reduction services in the building. There is no screening or training for motel/hotel staff to make sure they are treating homeless residents respectfully.
It’s not just private business owners who are the problem. We know from the experiences of people who live in so-called ‘supportive’ housing, run by the same not-for-profit agencies being contracted to manage motels / hotels, that the situation is complicated with housing providers. Housing providers are, under housing contracts, landlords that have a lot of power. Like other landlords, housing providers have treated their residents badly, abusing their power to control people’s lives and setting up restrictive rules. Over years of doing advocacy for loved ones who live in ‘supportive’ housing we have seen many instances where housing providers have punished residents who challenge them by calling the cops on them, evicting them, or banning them from accessing onsite survival services. The kind of emergency sheltering and transitional housing being set up right now doesn’t fall under tenancy legislation, creating even more opportunities for abuse of power and less options for accountability.
When the only housing agency staffing is one worker sitting at a front desk 24/7 in a building of 40-100 people, realistically the only thing that person can do is be a cop, enforcing no-guest policies and other rules. This is not supportive housing. It puts frontline workers in a terrible position of having to police and evict people, rather than supporting and advocating for residents. It creates power struggles that lead to high tension and frustration in buildings. It prevents the kind of resident organizing that has the potential to make housing safe.
As expressed in the housing demands issued by residents of Super InTent City, just like anyone else people in the street community need self-determination and control, affordable long-term housing not institutionalized temporary shelters, to be treated fairly, to not be surveilled or policed at home, and to have high quality housing that meets diverse needs. The current options at motels, hotels, and other temporary sheltering spaces secured by BC Housing do not meet these criteria.
Services at the hotels/motels also aren’t working. The provincial government promised on-site services and 24/7 staffing, but this is not fully happening. People don’t even have consistent universal access to basics like sufficient food, bathrooms with showers, or laundry. The secure storage that was promised for people’s belongings has not yet materialized. Harm reduction services are not yet fully set up.
And the assumptions being made by Island Health and BC Housing that everyone needs the same kinds of services and that on-site services is the way everyone wants to access care is deeply problematic. While all human beings need certain things — food, water, bathrooms, laundry, privacy, ways to communicate, access to health care, etc. — nobody’s asked people living in motels/hotels what services they want and how to set that up. Top-down decisions about services is just another form of social control under the guise of “helping”. Many service providers are, as individuals, awesome people who really care about and will go to the mat for their clients; but the system is a setup for professionalization of care and to reinforce service provider decision-making over people’s lives.
We see this in how there’s been no discussion about Indigenous people’s needs for culturally safe housing and services. Indigenous-specific needs aren’t at all part of the sheltering or service plan other than a 10-15 bed shelter for Indigenous people which keeps getting trotted out by BC Housing every time the Indigenous Harm Reduction Team asks what is being done to address the needs of the 500+ homeless people here who are Indigenous. At meetings other service providers are silent on this, leaving it once again to Indigenous people to always have to do this work and then having to fight with white-dominated agencies and only getting leftover scraps of funding instead of having allies who can be counted on to insist this be on the agenda.
We see the professionalization agenda too in how decision-making has been happening around who gets placed in the motels / hotels, and who is making decisions about new sites. Friends across the water have told us that at Oppenheimer Park, people living at the camp are involved in the process. But BC Housing confirmed today that the decisions here are being made by government, GVCEH, and housing/health service providers, including mental health professionals on highly coercive teams like ACT. No homeless people and also no representation from peer-based harm reduction organizations. It couldn’t be clearer who are considered the “real” service providers and whose expertise matters.
Sometimes health providers play into these power dynamics (intentionally or unintentionally) by positioning themselves as knowing what’s best at the motels / hotels, instead of consistently insisting that people who will be most impacted be the ones with the most say and power in the decision-making. While trying to be part of decision-making may be coming from a good intention of being a strong advocate, centering service providers in decision-making also reinforces service provider power and control more generally. This is especially complex when service providers are gatekeepers to things people want and need, like prescription alternatives to street drugs, signoff on a disability benefits application form, referral to another program, or access to meth pipes. This is a systemic problem similar to the dynamic of housing providers controlling people’s access to shelter. It also ends up reinforcing stereotypes that homeless people can’t manage their own lives and need service providers to make decisions for them, a longstanding issue especially for mental health system survivors, people with cognitive disabilities or development disabilities, and people who use substances who are all stereotypically viewed as incompetent and in need of someone else to impose control. This paternalism is compounded for Indigenous people who have since the start of colonization been living under white people’s assumptions that they know what’s best.
PEOPLE IN PRE-EXISTING SHELTERS AND LOW-INCOME HOUSING
Being unsheltered is a big deal. Living outside rather than in problematic group settings or solitary spaces is safest for some people, but it’s also hard — especially in COVID times when because of service closures and physical distancing rules there are even fewer options than usual to get warm, stay dry, get food and water, and have ways to connect. It is good that people have been prioritizing survival needs for people living outside.
But totally lost in this is the 1000+ homeless people who are temporarily sheltered, also with no housing security, also impacted by service closures and often in unsafe conditions. There are still people living in pre-existing shelters and temporary transitional housing that reduced their spaces in mid-March but didn’t close completely. People in these situations also have no long-term housing security, and are also impacted by reduction or closure of community services. There are people in temporary facilities like detox or hospital who have a roof over their heads for now, but when they get out have nowhere to go. People in the street community who are in jail/prison with no housing to return to when they get out have been completely left out of the equation. There’s no outreach to people who are couch-surfing.
This doesn’t even begin to address the many more people in the street community who are in housing but are overcrowded, unsafe, or at high risk of homelessness because their rent is unaffordable. Nor does it address the many thousands of people who aren’t part of the street community but still in precarious housing situations.
While access to health care and other services is vitally important, including peer-run overdose prevention, the intensive concentration of resourcing of on-site services at the new BC Housing contracted shelters means that all of these people not living in the new temporary spaces no longer have access to community services. Organizations that were already under-resourced before COVID have been pushed far beyond sustainable capacity by this crisis and don’t have enough staff to fully do community-based services and on-site services. It will take time to find experienced people who are able to do this work. In the meantime, what happens to people who can no longer access overdose prevention sites, drop-ins, medical care, or mental health services?
pushing back on bullshit
The gaps are daunting. The fuckery is deeply evil, and the harms very real. But there are many positive things happening politically to challenge this disaster, to try to address people’s immediate survival needs, and to show up with love, care, and support. The street community is brilliant and resourceful, and so creative. People shouldn’t be living under these conditions, and the stress is definitely taking a toll, but it’s also inspiring to hear stories of the ways people are coming together to build community and look after each other.
There are lots of possible ways to get involved. We look forward to working with you!