(Photo credit: Parksville Qualicum Beach News/JR Rardon | Residents attend open house for 222 Corfield St. | March 2018)
People experiencing homelessness endure life-threatening conditions, and the harsh realities of sheltering outdoors are often intensified by unimaginable stigma and harassment. After years of neglect, the provincial government has begun to offer some desperately needed funds to ameliorate BC’s ever-growing homelessness crisis. With funding flowing through BC Housing, new shelters, temporary modular housing, and more permanent solutions have been proposed in communities across the province.
Federal and provincial governments seem aligned around principles of “Housing First”, drawing on years of research and pilot studies validating the approach. These first signs of positive change are encouraging, yet there is a significant threat to even incremental progress. New housing projects that could offer respite are routinely slowed down or stopped altogether because of community opposition.Read more
Why do we care more about peacocks than humans? Reflections on the displacement of the “Surrey Strip”
(Photo credit: CTV Vancouver & Meenakshi Mannoe | Peacock seen in Surrey's Sullivan Heights and Surrey RCMP during the clearing of Surrey Strip | June 2018)
The plight of Surrey’s peacocks is raising eyebrows and attracting headlines and sympathy, while homeless humans and their belongings are being power washed away to clear a path for the city’s urban renewal.
Two weeks ago, a stretch of tents serving as home and refuge for homeless residents along 135A Street in Surrey, the “Surrey Strip,” was dismantled through the concerted efforts of the City of Surrey, RCMP, Fraser Health Authority, BC Housing, and Lookout Society personnel. City and BC Housing staff said that the residents sheltering there had three days to move off the Strip. Some had been offered modular housing units; others, shelter beds.
The province’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing advised that the offerings were based on “assessed need.” The Ministry did not clarify who did the assessment nor what the needs were. Over the course of three days, residents of 135A were moved off the Strip at the behest of the Surrey Outreach Team after years of increasing frustration about the situation in Whalley.
(City staff clearing belongings of people who are homeless along Surrey Strip | June 2018)
Since 2016, the City of Surrey responded to concerns, primarily originating from housed community members and business owners, by creating the City Centre Response Plan. This Plan included the creation of the Surrey Outreach Team, comprised of RCMP and bylaw staff deployed as an “on the ground manifestation of the four priorities of the Public Safety Strategy – Ensure Safe Places, Prevent and Reduce Crime, Build Community Capacity and Support Vulnerable Persons.”
Despite widespread acknowledgment that people become homeless for many reasons, including a lack of affordable housing, inadequate health services, or unsuitable shelter options, the City mobilized law enforcement to deal with the issue. Pivot staff who have spoken with residents heard reports of constant police surveillance, harassment by bylaw officials, requirements to dismantle tents and tarps daily, weekly displacement for street cleaning, seizure of personal belongings, and a general climate of instability.
(Surrey RCMP look on as belongings and tents of homeless residents are thrown away | June 2018)
Over many years, 135A in particular and the Whalley region became increasingly notorious as an epicentre of “crime, poverty, and homelessness.” At its peak, the Surrey Strip housed around 300 people and stretched four blocks. The area became a flashpoint for bitter debate and acrimony between people who were homeless and their advocates, and business owners and housed residents who lacked compassion and a basic understanding of how poverty manifests.
To the people who lived there—because of no other viable alternatives—it was home. Then, in the course of a week, they were told they had no option but to move along. Yes, some were offered spots in the new modular housing units, but many were referred to existing shelter accommodations. People had to uproot their lives in 72 hours and make life-changing decisions about their next moves while packing up all their possessions.
(City staff clearing belongings of people who are homeless along Surrey Strip | June 2018)
While an increase in supportive housing units is a welcome first step for many, the units are far too few to house everyone who was living on the Surrey strip. Insufficient and institutional housing and emergency shelters are not the ultimate, aspirational goals for people experiencing homelessness. Shelters are not housing—they are temporary overnight mats or beds, often in overcrowded, stressful, and inaccessible conditions.
Supportive housing programs often come with conditions, such as no pets, strict curfews, and prohibitions on having friends visit, rendering them inaccessible for many people experiencing long-term homelessness. It is precisely the individuals who cannot avail themselves of temporary shelter or supportive housing who require the most urgent and accessible forms of housing.Read more
(Photo credit: Peter Kim | Anita Place tent city | June 2017)
For the first time in British Columbia’s history, an encampment of people affected by homelessness withstood the headwinds of local government, bylaw officials, and the bigotry and violence of certain members of the community to remain standing for an entire year.
Anita Place has become Canada's longest-standing, community-organized public encampment in living memory. May 2 was the anniversary of the tent city, which was set up to house those sheltering outdoors in Maple Ridge, but also as an act of protest—a visible symbol of government failure and the inability to afford safe and accessible housing to those in need.
(Photo credit: Peter Kim | One of the first tents being set up at Anita Place | May 2, 2017)
This is significant. It is evidence that the rights, health, and safety of marginalized communities can and should supersede local bylaws barring them from public space, and that the rights of people to protect themselves from the harms of exposure and constant displacement should take clear precedence over the disdain of those who lack compassion and an understanding of the current housing crisis. This is a crisis we as a Canadian society have created, and tolerated, for far too long.Read more
Pivot Legal Society fights to abolish mandatory ‘victim fine surcharge’ from Criminal Code at Supreme Court of Canada
For Immediate Release
April 17, 2018
(From L-R: Lawyers Caitlin Shane, Pivot; Naomi Moses, Rosenberg Kosakoski LLP; DJ Larkin, Pivot; Graham Kosakoski, Rosenberg Kosakoski LLP)
Ottawa, ON – Today at the Supreme Court of Canada, Pivot Legal Society and the team at Rosenberg Kosakoski Litigation challenged a law that unconstitutionally threatens the health and safety of marginalized communities, including those dying at an alarming rate because of the opioid overdose crisis in Canada. Together, we argued before the nine justices of the Supreme Court that the mandatory victim fine surcharge amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, and therefore, should be struck from the Criminal Code.
“A mandatory fine constituting a third or more of a person’s monthly welfare income drives people further into poverty and puts their health and safety at risk,” said DJ Larkin, Legal Director at Pivot Legal Society.
The victim fine surcharge is a mandatory fee of $100 or $200 per offence imposed on all individuals convicted of an offence in Canada regardless of its seriousness. For marginalized communities and people receiving income assistance, paying this fine can lead to greater poverty and force individuals to make sacrifices that threaten their health and safety.Read more
Some great news in the fight to advance social justice and human rights: our ally, friend, and supporter, Unbounded Canada Foundation on behalf of Rob Milne, has made an incredible commitment to the Pivot Foundation. Unbounded Canada has pledged $1,000,000 over the next 10 years—$100,000 a year—to support the Pivot Foundation’s mission of supporting charitable programs and projects that work in collaboration with marginalized communities affected by homelessness, drug use, policing, and engaged in sex work.
The Pivot Foundation is the charitable partner of Pivot Legal Society. This commitment is outstanding not only due to its sheer size and generosity, but also because it will directly contribute to the long-term sustainability of the organization. For many non-profits, the struggle to finance ongoing work is one of the things that keep staff up at night.Read more
(Guest blog post by Patti MacAhonic, Executive Director of the Ann Davis Transition Society. The Society provides education, prevention, and support services to those affected by abuse or violence. This year they are organizing the Women’s March Fraser Valley on January 20.)
After a long day, as I leave my office into the cold, uninviting night, lock the door behind me and turn around, there’s a young woman with a shopping cart hiding in the shadows, her meager belongings folded neatly and her face painted with a terrified look. She’s just been kicked out of her house by her partner and has nowhere to go. There are no beds for women open and the transition houses are once again full.
I hear loud voices in our parking lot, and I go out to investigate. I witness a couple arguing and invite them in from the cold. It’s -10 degrees, an unusually cold early evening. They tell me their situation: The woman has just been released from the hospital for serious medical conditions, he has been released from prison. They have a welfare check for rent, but no phone or vehicle to find a place. They reveal that they once had a home, good life, jobs, and relative stability; but he decided to sell drugs (he takes full accountability) and got caught, went to jail—his house now confiscated—and here they are. She will not last the night outside in the bitter cold, and there are no places for women to find refuge. I borrow my co-workers car and drive them to a cheap motel for a place to rest their heads. The owner gives them two days for the price of one so they can line up a rental.
(Photo credit: www.homesforwomen.ca)
On her way to our thrift shop which houses our Bad Date Program, my outreach worker witnesses a woman being attacked in the alley. Standing only 5 ft. tall, she rushes to help and chases off the two assailants who had robbed and beaten the woman. She brings her to our office for an emergency counselling session. The woman refuses to call the RCMP, which is her right.
The accounts I’ve illustrated are but one week in Chilliwack. We have over 200 women on our waitlist for Stopping the Violence Counselling. There are five emergency beds at the Salvation Army for women and two transition houses for women and children in the community. Nothing low barrier, and the five emergency beds fill up quickly. It’s heartbreaking to witness this happening on a daily basis when we are supposed to be the help, and we can’t. There are simply not enough resources to meet the need.
The impossibly high cost of rent is having a cascading effect across the province, principle among them, keeping women and children in transition houses for longer than the contracted 30 days. It’s quite common for them to stay between 60 and 90 days in search of affordable housing. This traps women in dangerous and violent situations, or drives them out to become part of the growing number of homeless women surviving precariously on the streets. In Chilliwack the ratio for homeless women to men is the highest in the province: 37%.
To further exacerbate this growing problem the many camps that were home to homeless women were shut down right as the weather became colder. These closures created a domino effect with multiple camps closing at staggered intervals. The city has been involved in this process, on the sidelines at least. Frontline workers report that there has been a notable spike in overdose events after the camps began closing—exact correlation is difficult to determine. Chilliwack had the highest percentage increase in overdose deaths in the Fraser Health Authority region in 2017, along with some of the highest rates of overdoses at the ER.Read more