A Vancouver city councillor is urging residents to separate legitimate concerns about public safety in the city’s downtown from attacks on harm reduction services that provide clean needles and a safe drug supply in the midst of a deadly overdose crisis.
“You can be compassionate, and still care about public safety,” said Melissa de Genova, a councillor with the Non-Partisan Association. De Genova said she unequivocally supports harm reduction, including safe supply, as one of the “four pillars” of Vancouver’s drug strategy.
The concern comes as Dallas Brodie, spokesperson for the Safer Vancouver group that has been raising concerns about downtown safety, says people struggling with mental illness or addiction should be locked up in institutions outside cities. The group has called harm reduction “a failed experiment.”
“If people are in a community and they’re scaring people and they’re walking around without adequate clothing on and things like this, people should be able to make a phone call, and presume that someone will come and apprehend these people,” Brodie told The Tyee, suggesting people could then choose between jail and a “secure facility where you could get care.”
“Our idea would be sort of a campus of care where you would get triaged,” she said. “Some place that would be outside the city limits, and if you needed to go out, you would be accompanied or something like that.”
In an Aug. 16 podcast, Brodie suggested people who use drugs could be put on a ship on the Fraser River.
“They would have been better to bring in a naval ship or set up a barracks somewhere and take them away from the city core and say they have to stay there,” she told host James Faulkner.
“They can do whatever they want and use their drugs and yell and scream and fight but it’s not going to be near children [or] elderly people.”
Safer Vancouver, along with another group called StepUP, is also calling for an audit of Downtown Eastside social service agencies to find out whether money is being well-spent, citing a 2014 audit that found misuse of public funds by the Portland Hotel Society.
They’re critical of harm reduction services like safe consumption sites and a safe supply of prescribed drugs to replace the poisoned illicit drug supply.
Both groups have links to homeowner groups in Shaughnessy, one of Vancouver’s wealthiest neighbourhoods where homes are valued in the millions or tens of millions. StepUP started as a group of homeowners opposed to a provincial tax on homes worth more than $3 million, while Brodie is a former member of the Shaughnessy Heights Property Owners’ Association.
De Genova and other NPA city councillors, school trustees and park board commissioners are also distancing themselves from comments made by NPA board member Christopher Wilson. Wilson, the former B.C. bureau chief for the far-right website Rebel News, suggested residents “start harassing these low-lifes,” referring to homeless people using drugs in the city’s Yaletown neighbourhood.
Vancouver columnist Sean Orr first posted screenshots of the comments on his Twitter account. Press Progress then reported on Wilson’s posts.
Wilson posted the comments in a private Facebook group called Downtown Community Safety Watch in response to a post that showed homeless people smoking drugs on a street in Yaletown. “Honestly they wanna deteriorate the quality of life in my neighbourhood let’s ruin their fun.”
After another commenter asked how to harass people, saying it didn’t seem like a solution, Wilson wrote: “Speak up, say something, tell them to leave, tell them they aren’t welcome to degrade our neighbourhoods.”
The comments have since been deleted. The Tyee attempted to contact the NPA for comment but did not receive any response and was not able to find contact information for Wilson.
In a statement released Thursday, the NPA’s elected caucus said they denounced Wilson’s comments.
“We… believe in an inclusive, compassionate and caring city free from stigma and discrimination,” the statement said. “We must support all residents, and show compassion for those struggling with homelessness, mental health and substance use.”
De Genova said she has tried to get in touch with the members of Safer Vancouver but so far has not been able to reach anyone who actually belongs to the group. A Safer Vancouver Twitter account that often posts or retweets photos of graffiti, garbage, homeless people or people doing drugs has been active since May.
The account is focused on the Yaletown neighbourhood, where concerns about homelessness, violence and drug use increased after the province and city moved people who were living in the Oppenheimer Park tent city to the Howard Johnson Hotel on Granville Street.
Media stories have documented incidents in the neighbourhood, such as a half-naked man who was filmed jumping on a car, and another where a woman posted a photo of a man using drugs who she said had threatened her while she was with her child.
Aside from Brodie, the only other person publicly associated with Safer Vancouver is Nadia Iadisernia. She’s the principal of a car firm called Luxury Alliance Group, “creators and producers of lifestyle and automotive events,” according to her LinkedIn page.
Iadisernia told producers with Cited Media’s Crackdown podcast that she had volunteered to make Safer Vancouver’s website, but was not a member of the group. She did not reply to a request for comment from The Tyee.
Brodie told The Tyee she is the only member willing to speak publicly because she doesn’t fear losing her job or being “cancelled” on social media.
Sarah Blyth, a founder of the Overdose Prevention Society, said there’s been an increase in social media accounts sharing photos of unhoused people using drugs in public, sleeping and getting into confrontations, all in the name of public safety.
But with homelessness increasing because of measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and overdose deaths also on the rise, Blyth said it’s a dangerous trend that increases the stigma that already pushes people to the margins.
“What it’s doing is killing people. It’s a distraction from what we need to do, and I’m seeing a lot of that recently,” Blyth said.
“There’s been an uproar of people labelling people as bad people, and it’s becoming a political campaign.”
Karen Ward, a drug policy advocate and Downtown Eastside resident, said people have fewer places to go and are living more of their lives on the street. COVID-19 measures have meant tighter restrictions on visitors in SROs, fewer open bathrooms and reduced hours or closure for resources like community centres and drop-in spaces.
She said current conditions in Vancouver’s downtown have been caused by an unprecedented global pandemic.
“You don’t want people doing drugs in public? Well, consumption rooms are the solution to that. If you don’t like feces everywhere, the solution is toilets — public toilets that are accessible to people, not toilets in private businesses that are accessible only to the people that they want,” Ward said.
Ward suggested that people worried about how new social housing will affect their neighbourhood could contact the housing provider to ask how they could help.
When it comes to petty crime and violence, Ward said the real solution is to advocate for safe supply, which would eliminate the need for people to continually find money to buy illicit drugs.
Asked about the idea of locking people up outside the city, Ward pointed to Canada’s grim history of institutionalizing people.
“This idea that you could just lock everybody up, ship them up north somewhere — what are you actually thinking?” Ward asked. “What is a city for if not for living with people who are not quite like you?”