When government is the public health emergency

On September 23, 1997, after pressure from street community activists, the Vancouver/Richmond Health Board declared a public health emergency in the Downtown Eastside. HIV rates had skyrocketed as a result of insufficient access to clean needles and more than 1,000 people had died of drug overdoses.

On April 14, 2016, BC’s provincial health officer declared a public health emergency in response to a sudden steep surge in drug overdoses and deaths. That public health emergency is still in effect.

On March 17, 2020, the BC government declared a public health emergency relating to COVID-19 and shelters and other survival services here started to reduce or shut down services. On March 18 a provincial state of emergency was declared, giving the government power to remove or restrict people from anywhere in ‘bc’ (among other things).

All of these are real health emergencies reflecting things that were, in part, beyond anyone’s control. New diseases like HIV and COVID are nobody’s fault — although there are many social conditions determining who’s most impacted (e.g., legislated poverty, overcrowded housing and prisons, institutional racism, neglect of people in care homes, substandard health care for Indigenous people, disregard for the value of gay & trans people’s lives, exploitation of migrant workers). Contamination of drug supply, while a predictable consequence of capitalism and the war on people who use drugs, is also something that couldn’t have been completely anticipated.

But we also see that the way government responded in all of these emergencies made the situation worse than it had to be. In all of these instances government failed to do what was most needed, and took action in ways that were harmful.

government, not COVID, is the biggest threat to the street community

When COVID first took off here, the fear was understandable. At that time not much was known about how it spread, and whether hospitals could handle a sudden influx of people needing intensive treatment. What had happened in other countries was terrifying and we were scared that COVID would rip through the street community. Even though we knew shutting down survival services would have a terrible impact, we also understood why it happened.

But the consequence of that decision has been devastating for people who were already living with high chaos and uncertainty, and already didn’t have access to basic survival needs. Rather than face the situation constructively and figure out how to creatively take care of people, government has flailed and floundered. People living outside have been without laundry for 6 weeks, with minimal access to food, health care, drinking water, showers, or other bare necessities. The drug supply has become even more toxic, resulting in another surge in overdose deaths.

And now government has, again, made things worse.

It has been 4 days since the provincial government announced that tent cities where 360 people have been living at Topaz Park and along Pandora Avenue must be dismantled by May 9. Even if you take the most optimistic view possible — that the order was trying to light a fire under BC Housing, Island Health, and the city to get it together and stop waffling about finding appropriate shelter — the impacts of that decision have been brutal.

For the past 4 days we have (at the invitation of community organizations) been present at their meetings with different levels of government, and in daily contact with outreach workers about what they are seeing on the ground. At a time when governments are starting to explore lifting restrictions on movement of housed people, it is clear that government is forcing people in the street community, already at huge risk of early death, into completely unsafe and inhumane situations in their push to clear the parks.

the current situation

There are still not enough spaces secured for people living at Topaz and Pandora, and anyone else who is homeless won’t even be considered. Yet there is no plan for the people who will be left outside.

BC Housing will not identify anything about potential site options, not even to outreach workers who have relationships with the residents and are trying to continue to support them when they get moved. We do know at this point that it is not only individual rooms in motels/hotels that BC Housing is looking at, some of the facilities being explored are communal shelters that are worse for COVID transmission than living in your own tent outside.

BC Housing’s commitment at this point is to have one housing agency worker on-site 24/7. Agencies that were already chronically under-resourced and understaffed can’t hire and train mass numbers of staff fast enough to staff the buildings that have been lined up, creating a bottleneck for placement at the few sites that have been secured. BC Housing’s ‘solution’ is to consider increasing security personnel outside the building, making it clear that the function of the housing agency worker is not to support residents — how could one person support 40-90 people — but rather to police movement in and out of the building (guests are not allowed). Across the water, Vancouver Coastal Health chief medical officer Patricia Daly pointed out that overdose is a much greater risk than COVID and that banning visitors and guests is more harm than help, yet no-guest policies are still in force here.

In the meantime motel staff who have had no training or experience are deciding how situations will be dealt with. Residents have no eviction protection as motels aren’t under the Residential Tenancy Act, and multiple people have been evicted already even though BC Housing said at a recent meeting “eviction is not best practice”.

Once people leave the tent cities they can’t come back as their spot is fenced off. So there have been situations where people get to a motel they’ve been told to go to only to find out there’s been a mixup and they can’t come in. In other instances they come in, there’s an instant problem, and they get turfed. In both situations they are left with nowhere to go as they can’t “recamp” at the tent city they just left, and they have no tent, sleeping bag, or other survival necessities either as people’s belongings are being moved by a moving company.

Services aren’t in place at some of the motels people are already placed at, so food, cleaning services, and other bare minimum basics are not yet consistently happening. Overdose prevention and response services are not yet set up, creating extremely high risk for people using alone behind closed doors.

Placement decisions have been totally haphazard in the push to meet the target of clearing 15-20 people per day. The provincial government repeatedly stated that street families would be kept together, but there is no process to make that happen. In some instances couples have been separated, or people put together who are in conflict and can’t safely be in the same space. People are not being placed where it is best for them, but where it will facilitate BC Housing being able to meet placement targets.

what can we constructively do?

The government push to displace tent cities was in some ways predictable, given how many times they’ve done that in the past. But to do it in such an intense and rapid way during a pandemic when conditions are particularly challenging was a surprise to everyone — including people living in the tent cities, legal advocates, organizations doing outreach, and our network. We needed a few days to try to get more information and determine how to have the most positive impact.

There are many things that need to be done on structural and systemic issues. We will continue to document what is happening. We will keep pushing all levels of government to stop hurting people and stop hoarding information. We will continue to demand that government ask people what they need and listen and follow through, start working constructively with the organizations that are on the ground, and commit serious resources to ensuring people’s survival needs are met. NIMBY entitlement and anti-poor hate is surging, and we will keep working with our friends at Homes Not Hate to do media tracking, supporting people to write letters and op-eds, and otherwise denormalize poor-bashing.

There are also immediate survival needs to tend to. There are still many questions about where people will end up and what will happen for those inside as well as those left outside. Seeing that the situation is worse now than it was a week ago, we have been working to create infrastructure for sustained support as it is clear that this crisis isn’t going to be over any time soon. While we can’t solve the situation, we can show up for people and provide love, care, and some survival basics.

Given what we know now, our thought is to focus our efforts in the following ways:

  1. Build a sustainable network that works for COVID times. It is clearer now that COVID is not a short-term issue and that all our lives are going to be affected in various ways over time. It’s also clear that the situation is going to continue to have a lot of uncertainty and chaos, with many factors outside of our control including government decisions. COVID, the overdose crisis and colonialism are not ending tomorrow, so we are dedicated to sustaining this work in the long run. We can’t organize in exactly the same ways we have in the past, but pandemics aren’t new and we have role models and mentors. We are excited to learn from our own ancestors’ experiences with contagious illness, as well as people with disabilities, prison organizers, healing justice activists, and others who know how to build community resilience despite being physically and socially constrained. We can learn together as we go, and help each other not burn out.
  1. Make sheltering-in-place more viable for people living outside. No level of government is working with people outside on their survival needs, and funded agencies are, understandably, focusing on the horrendous impending transition for people who are being coercively moved inside to substandard sheltering. While living outside in community is safer for some people than living in prison-like shelters or substandard housing, living outside is hard and includes dealing with NIMBYS, cops, etc. as well as having to fight for access to necessities like food, water, and showers. Six weeks into the COVID crisis we see that these battles for basics are exponentially harder. We can’t meet all the survival needs, but we can make some difference.
  1. Support frontline workers, especially peer workers. While the people most impacted by this situation are those who are homeless, frontline workers (including people who are part of the street community and precariously housed) are being treated terribly right now. We know from the four-year-long overdose crisis that there is already intense cumulative burnout and grief, and in the COVID crisis frontline workers are in an even worse situation than before. Indigenous peer workers are particularly at risk of burning out because of the constant strain of dealing with colonial bullshit on top of everything else. We want to nourish those who are in the best position to help people stay safe. 
  1. Continue to prioritize the organizations that most align with our values. All of the organizations we’re working with are doing highly needed work and we will continue to support all of them in various ways. But the Indigenous Harm Reduction Team stands out as an all-Indigenous, peer-based organization that works relationally and wholistically, stepping outside a narrow conception of harm reduction to address people’s overall wellness. They also operate from an Indigenous economic justice model that values and supports peer workers, and refuse to accept money with funder strings that would force them to work in colonial ways. This means they have less funded labour than other agencies. We will continue to prioritize supporting IHRT’s outreach.

If this resonates for you we hope you will get in touch about how you can get involved.

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