I was happy to vote for a recent Vancouver city council resolution that affirmed “a commitment to progressive animal welfare” as part of the city’s ethical purchasing policies. It passed unanimously.
But it got me thinking about applying the same standards to human beings, especially those who happen to be homeless.
The animal rights policy, moved by Councillor Pete Fry, promises the city will respect “Five Freedoms” identified by the BC SPCA, Humane Canada and the Canadian Medical Veterinary Association: freedom from hunger, malnutrition and thirst; freedom from fear and distress; freedom from physical and thermal discomfort; freedom from pain, injury and disease; and freedom to express normal patterns of behaviour.
I thought about the people camped out in Oppenheimer Park. As far as I know, no one has legally enshrined any rights for them. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls for the right to an adequate standard of living, but that right doesn’t seem to have any legal teeth in Canada. What if the city applied the same Five Freedoms to homeless human beings as we are committed to do to other animals?
“Freedom from hunger, malnutrition and thirst”: People who are unhoused also suffer hunger, and many are malnourished. Welfare rates are too low to pay for both food and rent, let alone anything else, unless you can get into social housing.
“Freedom from physical and thermal discomfort”: It’s not physically comfortable to sleep on cement, in doorways, or on the ground. Imagine if you didn’t have a cushy bed with nice pillows and blankets, especially if you suffer chronic pain such as arthritis. Thermal comfort means you shouldn’t have to freeze in the cold, get too hot in the summer, or be soaked in the rain, things that people who are homeless experience all the time.
“Freedom from pain, injury and disease”: The conditions of living outdoors cause sickness and make it difficult to heal. People who are unhoused also experience constant stigma and discrimination, which isn’t good for mental health. The medical costs associated with these avoidable illnesses are part of why it costs government more to keep people on the streets than to house them.
“Freedom to express normal patterns of behaviour”: If you have a home, you can sleep at night, get up in the morning, fix yourself some food, go to work or school, and come back to your home, bed and possessions. But when you’re homeless, you have to worry about not having a lock on your door, or about having your possessions taken if you leave your tent. You may spend your day lining up for a place in a shelter and then for a free meal instead of living a life, looking for a job, taking care of oneself, spending time with friends and relatives.
So yes, we should treat animals well, but what about humans who don’t have homes? The first thing we need to do is create housing that people with low incomes can afford. We know how to do it. Modular homes can be built quickly at a low price. Unfortunately, the province budgeted for only 200 new units in 2019 for all of B.C. when we know we have more than 7,000 who are homeless.
Housing is pivotal to ensuring all Five Freedoms for human beings. Both federal and provincial governments have a responsibility to ensure that all residents are adequately housed. If senior governments won’t provide the money, they should give local governments the authority to implement progressive property taxes that can raise the funds from those most able to contribute. The province should also immediately transfer “school tax” revenues to cities for the express purpose of ending homelessness.
In the meantime, people who are homeless should be treated with kindness and respect. When homeless (stray) dogs are reported to authorities, someone comes and picks them up and gives them shelter and food and tries to find them a permanent home. Once I saw city workers tell a homeless man he had to move. He didn’t know where to go. He couldn’t carry his tent, mattress, blankets and clothes with him, so he just threw up his hands and walked off. The workers proceeded to put all his stuff in garbage cans. I ran after him to see if I could help, but he was so frustrated he wouldn’t stop or talk.
Instead of passing bylaws forbidding people to lie down or sit on the sidewalk, or clearing tent cities out of public parks, cities should be providing sanitary facilities like porta potties and clean water. There should be facilities to store their possessions, so they won’t be stolen. No homeless person should be forced to move by city authorities unless provided with a good place to move to.
If we can all agree that non-human animals have a right to the Five Freedoms, then hopefully Vancouver city council and all residents of our city will also support a Homeless Bill of Rights like other cities across North America.