When Strathcona residents rallied outside of Camp KT on Sept. 29, demanding that Vancouver act on the growing homeless encampment in the neighbourhood park, it was only my second day on the job as Vancouver-Mount Pleasant’s BC Greens MLA candidate.
The first press call came in at noon. They wanted to know how the Green party would solve the homelessness crisis, and I felt completely unprepared. I knew solutions existed and that the Greens had long advocated for evidence-based action, but could I speak cogently to the most pervasive and complex crisis in our city and point to the pathway forward?
I stepped into politics when this snap election was called because I was fed up with the status quo, fed up with incremental change and the ongoing prioritization of capital over community. Like every other concerned citizen, I haven’t been able to understand why we haven’t done more to solve the homelessness and overdose crises when we have evidence-based research, city-wide motivation and ample resources at our disposal. How can politicians — presumably good-hearted, good-natured people — continue to fail us? Why is it only getting worse?
With Green policies in mind, I gave the best statement I could, offering tangible steps forward: basic income and mental health coverage, decriminalization and safe supply of drugs. My statement was published in a Vancouver Sun news story alongside NDP MLA Melanie Mark and Vancouver-Fairview BC Liberal candidate George Affleck’s comments with the subhead: “All parties agree homelessness is a complicated issue.”
But when I read that, a knot grew in the pit of my stomach: it wasn’t enough.
We keep talking about the symptoms of homelessness as if it were the sickness. We keep talking about the expressions of the problem instead of the root. It’s true the symptoms are complicated, but the root of the problem is not complicated. It’s simple: colonialism.
Homelessness is a characteristic of a society where land has been commodified and privatized to the point of mass exclusion. When settlers arrived here, they claimed land as their own, drew up documents and boundaries, and implemented a legal system and police force to regulate and enforce the boundaries they created.
Then came the profit motive. Not only did settlers steal what didn’t belong to them, they charged access for it. This colonial economic system of capitalism separated housing from being a “basic human right” to something you must “earn.” This is how white settlers created the neoliberal-colonialist model that prioritizes accumulation of capital — and it continues today.
What will solve the problem is having the conversation on what it looks like to give “land back” and then following through with it. What will solve the problem will be removing the profit incentive from human rights like housing, and abolishing laws that punish individuals for simply trying to survive in a system that has oppressed, degraded and marginalized them. What will solve the problem is shifting from an economy that drives wealth inequality to one that facilitates individual and community growth.
As the BC Greens study the potential of doughnut economics and seek to measure progress based on genuine progress indicators instead of gross domestic product, we are laying down the stepping stones to a decolonized system of governance.
The steps are many, and we will start by establishing a fund to support the acquisition and maintenance of rental housing by non-profits; building an accessible mental health-care system where cost is no barrier; implementing drug policies informed by experts and those with embodied experience; and most importantly, working with First Nations to move away from adversarial forums and modes of engagement to new, principled modes of co-operation.
We have the tools at our disposal to create a society where everyone is taken care of, but the trauma of colonialism and the refusal to acknowledge white supremacy within our systems and structures hold us back. When we acknowledge the violent beginnings of private property and homelessness, then we can reckon with the trauma that pervades our society, divides our communities and continues to harm all of us.
Because colonialism isn’t just at the root of the homeless crisis — it’s at the root of all our crises, including the breakdown of our climate and ecological systems.
Once we humble ourselves to traditional ways of knowing, then we will gain the integrative problem-solving abilities that will lead us to health and healing for all. As Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Matriarch Ta7alíya Michelle Nahanee teaches, we must decolonize first. Our intertwining crises are not complicated — they are urgent, complex, and must be addressed from the root up.
Read more: BC Election 2020, Rights + Justice, Housing
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