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The Perils of Displacing Tent Cities

Housing the vulnerable only works when supports match residents' needs

· Poverty Kills 2020

On the morning of April 25th, the BC NDP announced their plans to close down tent cities at Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue in Victoria, where over 360 people are currently living, as well as Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. The province claimed that it would work with municipal governments to gradually “transition people...into safe, temporary accommodations with wraparound supports to protect their health and safety in the overlapping COVID-19 and overdose crises.” But just minutes after the press conference ended, BC Housing and VicPD were already erecting a fence on Pandora, and had begun containment and surveillance of residents.

The legal order issued by the province states that people must leave the tent cities by noon on May 9th, after which time 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”. Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, Shane Simpson, has confirmed that although he hopes people will leave voluntarily, the police will be on hand to enforce the order.

Despite their ban on evictions, the province has effectively issued an eviction notice to the residents of Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue.

The legal order makes no commitment to ensuring that everyone has adequate housing before the displacement order is enforced. The May 9th deadline gives BC Housing staff just two weeks to complete individual assessments with 360 people to identify their unique needs. Once assessments have been completed, staff will need to secure enough supportive living spaces to meet those needs at all of these locations, and help people pack up their belongings, and move into the new spaces. They must also arrange for wraparound services, a system of care which involves working with a person's existing support network, as well as professionals who come together to form a treatment or recovery team to help the person overcome addiction, mental health, and other challenges.

Horgan's NDP has repeatedly claimed in statements to the press that nobody will be left behind, and that they have enough motel/hotel spaces to shelter everyone living in the tent cities. However, as of April 23, 2020, BC Housing had only secured 324 spaces in Victoria. According to Poverty Kills 2020, a network of people advocating on behalf of the street community in the midst of COVID-19, of those 324 spaces, 142 are either occupied or being held for people who need medical support but who do not require hospitalization. That leaves 182 available units--roughly half as many as needed to house everyone currently living at Topaz Park and on Pandora Avenue. Local agencies have also identified approximately 50 tents outside of the Topaz and Pandora camps, in addition to the people who are currently sleeping in unsafe conditions in shelters, either in cots, or on mats on the floor, without privacy or the ability to rest, physically distance, or self-isolate if they do become ill.

Local organizations such as Our Place, Peers, AVI, SOLID, and the Indigenous Harm Reduction Team have been providing survival services including showers, bathrooms, handwashing stations, and meals to people living outdoors in Topaz Park and on Pandora Avenue for the past five weeks, although additional essentials such as sufficient drinking water, and access to laundry facilities were lacking. It is unclear that all of the basic services that were available at the camps will continue to be available to people who move indoors. Those that remain unhoused due to a lack of spaces are likely to fair even worse.

Forcefully implementing the legal order without adequate time to assess residents' needs and put supports in place that match with those needs seems inconsistent with the province's stated commitment to providing safe, supportive accommodation for those without other options.