Shucking Oysters: Sweeping Floors with a Rake

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Joseph arrived to find bylaw officers had taped off his life belongings and police officers not allowing him access. After getting his name and information, the officers told him he could retrieve his things at a later date. They did return his wheelchair, but he was threatened with arrest when he tried to grab a bag of his clothing from behind the tape. 

Once again, dismantling homeless camps with no hint of humanity was conducted in Victoria last week. With multiple large container trucks taking away belongings, this tactical exercise even took support services staff in the area by surprise. Our Place Society had just surveyed those 77 people sheltering on the block over a two-week period, asking what it would take to help them get off the street. The charity had been working toward helping those into housing by the end of the year. “The trust built since January has been undermined,” Our Place CEO Julian Daly said. “Because some people will wonder: ‘Did we know about it? Were we part of it?”

Just over a year ago, I attended the UBCM Housing Summit held at the Wall Centre in downtown Vancouver (where a room with a king bed is $524 a night). Premier Eby and his entourage; Green leader Furstenau; the Housing Minister, and many municipal politicians, staff, and media attended the three-day event. Each morning, as I walked from my hotel in the west end, I could not believe the homeless clumps everywhere and with nary a glance from passersby. On the last day of the summit, fraught with social commentary, the City of Vancouver chose that day of all days, to forcibly remove the 100-plus Downtown Eastside tent encampment. How many shelter rooms were actually available for the 100 plus people? 12. 

Housing advocate Fiona York described the way tents and structures were removed as “violent,” “traumatizing” and “dehumanizing.” “The actions today were definitely violent actions that came from the state through various levels of government and authorizing bodies,” she said. 

Sixty-one city staff, plus three dozen police officers, were at the corner of Main and Hastings that morning. City staff included 46 workers from the engineering department; seven people overseeing impounding and staging, four liaison staff to assist with shelter and Vancouver Coastal Health referrals and four Vancouver Fire and Rescue staff. The itinerary: 11:00 am. 12 structures removed. 13 people displaced. Two people’s belongings impounded. 1:00 pm. 27 structures removed. 16 people displaced. 13 bins of belongings impounded. 3:00 pm. 55 structures removed. 26 people displaced. 17 bins of belongings removed. 5:00 pm. 10 structures removed. 26 bins of people’s belongings impounded. By end of day. 67 of 81 structures were removed. The next day the authorities returned. 1:00 pm. 10 people and 14 structures removed. 3:00 pm. 21 structures removed and 16 people displaced. 

With nowhere to go, they return. This approach is like sweeping a floor with a rake. Watch the YouTube video, “Real Canada. Saturday Afternoon – Downtown Vancouver, Canada Spring Walk, March 30, 2024” with almost 23 minutes of the bleakest footage on addiction and homelessness I have seen. And it is not just the big cities. Nanaimo, Courtenay, Campbell River, are all suffering from the same dystopia.

Dr Anna Kopec, assistant professor, School of Public Policy and Administration, at Carlton University, said that rather than this heavy-handed police response and forced eviction, we need to connect the homelessness with the services that they need. In particular, Kopec points to our emergency response and shelter system as not addressing the complexity of addiction. In order to stay in a shelter, “the folks are forced to remain sober and if you’re caught using any sort of substance, then you’re kicked out which really fails to help any individual with regard to thinking about emergency housing, and then on top of that their addiction issues.” 

Kopec said that in this neoliberal world, homelessness is often deemed a personal failing. It’s “this oscillation between kind of being identified as undeserving or in need of compassion that is also influencing the approaches to homelessness and adding complexity to how we approach the problem.” This may explain how so many people can simply walk by the homeless with not a blink of the eye. Fear? Disgust? Superiority? 

In Chasing the Scream, Johann Hari wrote that “when you have been told that you are a piece of shit all your life, embracing the identity of being a piece of shit, embracing other pieces of shit, living openly as a piece of shit seems better than being alone.” 

Addicts need help, not contempt. What happened in their past that made them find everyday life so unbearable? Conclusive studies have shown the long-term effects of early childhood trauma. Child abuse is as likely to cause drug addiction as obesity is to cause heart disease. Survivors of childhood trauma are “often left with that sense of self-hatred all their lives” and that is why so many of them turn to the strongest anaesthetic they can find. As addiction expert, Dr. Gabor Maté noted, if we were serious about reducing the number of addicts, we would identify the mothers who are most stressed and least able to cope and give them care and support in how to properly bond with their child. 

Addiction is an expression of despair, and the best way to deal with despair is to offer a better life rather than make threats. Being addicted should not be a crime.