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‘Criminalization 101’: BC Liberals’ Tough Talk on Homelessness Is Heartless and Uninformed, Say Advocates

Law-and-order language further hurts people who are already struggling and divides community, says former Maple Ridge mayor.

Jen St. Denis 5 Oct

Jen St. Denis is The Tyee’s Downtown Eastside reporter. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

People who have been working on the housing file for years in British Columbia are cringing at BC Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson’s “law and order” framing that connects crime with increasing homelessness.

“It further stigmatizes people who are struggling, and it also creates a divide,” said Nicole Read, a former mayor of Maple Ridge who dealt with community pushback against housing for unhoused people during her time in office.

“It’s very divisive language.”

During a press conference Friday, Wilkinson promised to work with B.C. mayors to stop homeless people from camping in parks and enforce an existing provincial law against “unsafe roadside panhandling.”

Wilkinson made his comments against a backdrop of media headlines about stabbings, weapons and a recent incident involving a man wielding a chainsaw.

“We need to end these lawless camps and tent cities in city parks with a provincial mandate to help these vulnerable people and re-establish order on our streets,” Wilkinson said.

The messaging comes as residents in Vancouver and Victoria have been speaking out about safety concerns in connection with large tent cities that have formed in city parks — concerns that include aggressive behaviour, thefts and trespassing on private property.

Karen Ward, a Downtown Eastside community advocate, said it’s troubling to hear Wilkinson advocating for more laws that target people who are living in deep poverty. A number of B.C. cities and towns have recently enacted bylaws that prohibit things like sitting on the sidewalk or panhandling.

“People are cited for these violations, and then they get a fine. Of course, people can’t pay them, and then they get a warrant issued, and then the cops get involved. And then the whole cycle begins — that’s criminalization 101,” Ward said.

“And then they wind up down here, and then they wind up dead.”

Ward said she’d like to see more attention paid to reducing poverty, the root cause of much of the violence and desperation on display in tent cities.

In 2008 and again in 2015, the B.C. Supreme Court struck down city bylaws — one in Victoria and the other in Abbotsford — that prohibited people from erecting shelters or sleeping in city parks. The rulings did allow municipalities to require people to pack up their tents each day.

But Wilkinson said that if elected, his government would provide better safe housing alternatives.

“The courts have relied upon the Charter of Rights to say people need a place to go to,” Wilkinson said.

“It’s a perfectly appropriate answer, and the answer is we need places for people to go to that are going to be effective for them — not just a warehouse where they’re going to be abandoned by the NDP.”

Wilkinson repeatedly took aim at the BC NDP’s decision to buy hotels and motels to use for emergency housing because of the pandemic and growing homelessness sparked by COVID-19 restrictions.

In May, hundreds of people who had been living at a tent city in Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park and two sites in Victoria were moved into those hotels and motels.

Wilkinson said not enough supports had been offered at the hotels.

“The NDP have walked away from tent cities and said we’ll provide some warehouses for people who are occupying them, and then it’s the problem of the neighbours, and it’s the problem of the cities,” he said.

When the province announced it had leased the Howard Johnson hotel in Downtown Vancouver to house people who had been living at Oppenheimer Park, it became an immediate target for neighbours’ ire, with one condo warning its residents “open drug use, dirty needles and aggressive behaviour” had become more common in the neighbourhood.

But the operator of the Howard Johnson, now called the Luugat, said it appears Wilkinson has been getting his information from social media.

Janice Abbott, CEO of Atira Women’s Resources Society, said the picture on the ground is much different. From the beginning, the Howard Johnson has been a quiet building with a safe drug consumption room located inside the hotel, she said.

“He hasn’t actually reached out or asked about what’s happening,” Abbott told The Tyee. “I just encourage him to be better informed.”

Abbott said Yaletown residents who have complained about more homelessness and more open drug use were likely seeing the results of service hubs like the Gathering closing because of COVID-19.

During his media conference, Wilkinson repeatedly mentioned Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog as someone who he has spoken to about the issue. Krog, a former NDP MLA, has said some homeless people with severe mental illness need more help than supportive housing can provide and should be cared for in institutions.

Jill Atkey, CEO of the BC Non-Profit Housing Association, said the province went through a process of de-institutionalization for people with mental illness and cognitive disabilities decades ago. While some people do need housing with more supports, Atkey warned that governments and housing providers need to be careful about making people’s homes feel overly institutional.

“We need to make sure there’s community-based support available, but also make sure that people feel at home in their own home,” Atkey said.

While former Maple Ridge mayor Read said she’s dismayed by the law-and-order language coming from Wilkinson, she said there does need to be a review of what services supportive housing operators are providing, and whether the staff they are hiring are qualified.

“It needs to be a health-care-centered model. It’s equally housing and health care, and right now we’ve got the housing. We do not have enough of the health care.”  [Tyee]

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