If Cities Don’t Want Homeless Encampments, They Should Help People, Not Punish Them

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Tents line the sidewalk on East Hastings Street in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Cities like Vancouver shouldn’t be cleaning up camps when people have nowhere to go. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

This summer, homeless encampments in cities like Vancouver and Los Angeles and others have been dismantled.

The reasons varied. In Vancouver, it was a fire hazard on Hastings Street, a major thoroughfare in the Downtown Eastside, where the encampment had stretched for several blocks.

In Los Angeles, the camp was on land owned by the city and designated for other uses. There, authorities have gone even further to reduce encampments, with the city council approve a ban on homeless encampments within 500 feet of schools and daycares.

Homeless encampments have become a fixture in large cities as well as in smaller communities. It should come as no surprise that homeless people seek the relative safety, community, and resources that encampments can provide.

Yet the ineffective and often punitive responses from different levels of government are alarming. These policy failures are most evident in the disturbing encampment evictions occurring across North America.

More … than An estimated 235,000 people are homeless in Canada. In addition to these visibly homeless, another 450,000 to 900,000 are among the “hidden” homeless: those who stay with family and friends because they have nowhere to live.

The police are not the answer

Our country has a housing crisis. Homelessness results from a severe lack of affordable housing, poverty and insufficient support services. For people who find themselves homeless, it is a torturous and difficult journey.

A woman speaks to the crowd during a protest against Vancouver's removal of a homeless encampment from the sidewalks of the Downtown Eastside, August 16, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

A woman speaks to the crowd during a protest against Vancouver’s removal of a homeless encampment from the sidewalks of the Downtown Eastside, August 16, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

For many, their journey to life on the streets begins with childhood trauma, mental health issues and substance abuse. For others, working in low-paying jobs with no savings or family support, they may be one paycheck away from homelessness. Regardless of how they end up homeless, people deserve to be treated with dignity and understanding.

Instead, police shockingly removed personal belongings from encampments, leaving people with few options for accommodation other than another street or park. Even worse, the evictions turned violent.

Los Angeles isn’t the only city that has tried to impose bans on people sleeping in public spaces with so-called vagrancy regulations. When Victoria tried to enforce bylaws to this effect in 2005, homeless people sued the city. The Supreme Court of British Columbia sided with the homeless, saying it was a violation of their rights.

A similar court ruling was issued in 2021 when residents of a CRAB Park Camp in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside challenged a Vancouver Parks Board injunction forcing an eviction. Elsewhere in British Columbia, the city of Prince George was have to apologize for the trauma he caused by destroying part of an encampment even though a judge ruled that the encampment should remain because there was not enough accessible and adequate housing in the city to justify its closure.

The dismantling of camps has a disastrous impact on people’s lives. It breaks down social relationships, causes stress and increases fear and distrust of authorities. It further dehumanizes homeless populations.

Long-term solutions needed

It is clear that the dismantling of the camps is not the solution. Some people, even if they have been accommodated, will opt for camps. In other cases, which occurred in Vancouver this summer, there were no shelters or other accommodations available. And in previous encampment evictions, some residents have been offered substandard ORS housingthe same type of housing that some were fleeing when they chose to live on the streets.

Regulations and practices that target activities like sleeping on the streets, parks or in cars and begging criminalize individuals. And the consequences of criminalizing homelessness fall disproportionately on racialized people. Marginalized communities often face discrimination in accessing housing and other services, which is compounded if they have criminal records due to homelessness.

Ten percent of off-reserve First Nations and Inuit populations have experienced homelessness in Canada. In 2020, the last year a a homeless count was conducted in Vancouver39% of the city’s homeless population was Indigenous, even though they represent 2% of the total population.

People who identified as Black, Hispanic and Arab were also significantly overrepresented compared to their percentage of the general population.

As federal housing advocate Marie-Josée Houle said during a September visit to Vancouver’s homeless encampments, “the housing system has let everyone down there.” Homeless camps have become a last resort due to the lack of better housing alternatives. The shelter system is overcrowded and too restrictive for many people.

But sanctioning the camps should not be the only solution. Encampments can be insecure and dangerous places, and offer few opportunities to exit homelessness. We need a holistic approach to ending homelessness that addresses the reasons for homelessness.

For those who fall into homelessness through economic necessity, we need more affordable rental housing, housing assistance and tighter rent controls to ensure tenants’ rights are respected. For those struggling with multiple health and addiction issues, we need more supportive housing.

For Indigenous people experiencing homelessness, we need more housing and better funded, culturally appropriate services. For those who end up in encampments, we need to ensure, at the very least, that their rights are respected.

Homeless camps aren’t going away any time soon. The federal government has already declared housing a human right. We must work to end homelessness now.

This article is republished from The conversation, an independent non-profit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Penny Gurstein, University of British Columbia. If you found it interesting, you might Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

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Penny Gurstein does not work for, consult, own stock, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond her academic appointment.

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