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Rights + Justice

The ‘Horrific’ Violence Unhoused People Face

In Langley, shootings. In Vancouver, burnings. In just one week. ‘All we do is fight to survive,’ says a woman seeking shelter in Maple Ridge.

Christopher Cheung 1 Aug

Christopher Cheung reports on urban issues for The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter at @bychrischeung.

The day after the Langley shootings on July 25, about 65 people living on the city’s streets gathered at the Langley Vineyard church over a quiet and sombre meal.

The church is a five-minute walk from the Cascades Casino, where the shooting spree began in the parking lot after midnight. The woman who was shot and critically injured there was experiencing homelessness, police have confirmed.

The shooter continued to move through Langley’s downtown, where many unhoused people are known to shelter in small groups. All in all, there were four victims, two of whom have died. Police caught up with a suspect around dawn at the Langley Bypass — where one of the victims was found wounded — and shot and killed him. Police have not yet speculated on a motive.

Unhoused people already face ongoing harassment because of stigma and discrimination, and this recent shooting has heightened fears.

“It’s obviously very shocking, unnerving and tragic, but in many ways not surprising,” said Pastor Leith White of Langley Vineyard.

“There’s been a growing escalation of violence and intolerance towards the homeless population. People assume that it’s a lifestyle choice. But living on the streets is not a safe activity... though it might be safer than the environment they left.”

The Langley Vineyard often partners with other local organizations to offer the unhoused people in Langley essentials ranging from groceries to visits with optometrists. Leith estimates that up to 80 new people ended up on the streets of his city earlier this year.

During the pandemic, some local hotels provided housing for people referred to them by B.C.’s Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction. This was on an ad-hoc basis, not an official program, and the hotels chose to terminate their rental agreements in March, resulting in people becoming unhoused again.

Most of those recently unhoused people are sheltering in and around Langley’s downtown, often in groups of two or three for safety. Since the shooting, one man living on the streets told the Langley Advance Times his worries led him to choose to sleep outside the fire department.

‘Just because you live in a tent doesn’t mean you’re less of a person’

In Vancouver, Elder Walter is no stranger to this kind of violence and harassment. After living in an SRO hotel, he’s sheltering at the tent city in CRAB Park, facing the Burrard Inlet and right beside the port.

Once, he saw these people who were “very well dressed” come by one of the tents.

“They pulled their knives out, cut the tent, smashed everything up,” said Walter. “What kind of neighbourly thing is that? Just because you live in a tent doesn’t mean you’re lesser of a person.”

Another person he knew was attacked while sleeping just off the sidewalk. “These guys came along and they put lighter fluid on him and lit him on fire.”

Two similar events recently happened in the Downtown Eastside. Around the same time as the Langley shootings, a woman was sitting on the sidewalk when a man poured flammable liquid on her head and lit it. Also around the same time, Vancouver police said that a man’s “homemade structure” in an alley, where he was sleeping, was set on fire. Police are investigating both cases as arson.

‘All we do every day is fight to survive’

Kari Chartrand, who has experienced homelessness on and off for 10 years and is currently sleeping at a shelter after kidney failure, has also experienced harassment in Maple Ridge.

She’s come across residents taking out their phones to take pictures of her and her husband to upload to social media, an increasingly common response by housed people when there are unhoused people in their neighbourhood. She’s also found feces left at the tent cities she used to live in, as well as in the woods where she’s camped.

“Yes, some of us are homeless. Yes, some of us have addiction issues. But behind all that, we’re not bad people,” said Chartrand, 25.

“[My husband and I] had jobs but we lost them because he had to take care of me because I got sick. All we do every day is fight to survive. But people don’t see that. So when some random person is screaming at us to get a job or calling us lowlifes from their cars, how can you judge a book by its cover without reading the story?”

Fiona York, formerly with the Carnegie Community Action Project and now an advocate for the CRAB Park tent city, says that unhoused people always tell her things like: “[People] see us differently, they look at us differently, like when I go to the store. We always get followed by police. We’re not given any dignity.”

While it has been a “horrific” week for unhoused people in the region, York says that feeling the weight of stigma from others is nothing new.

“People carry that in them all the time,” she said.

Back in Langley, Pastor White agrees.

“There’s been no major policy changes, no huge influx of housing,” he said. “These people are doing their best to survive and make do, and they’re there for a variety of circumstances, be it financial or housing or mental health.

“The level of difficulty that people experienced on Monday — that stigma and ignorance around homelessness — has probably not changed dramatically.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Housing

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