Re: Sheltering in Victoria City Parks
Dear Mayor Helps and City Council,
am writing on behalf of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (“BCCLA”), the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (“UBCIC”) and Pivot Legal Society to follow up on our letters we sent last month, and to make recommendations in advance of your upcoming vote about whether to reinstate the enforcement of all portions of the Parks bylaw.
We are calling upon you to take a transformative approach to the city’s relationships with people sheltering in parks, local Indigenous nations, Indigenous lands and inadequately housed Indigenous people displaced from other Indigenous nations and lands. If the political will to prioritize a reconciliatory approach is lacking, then we strongly urge you to at the very least extend the period of non-enforcement of the rule against daytime sheltering in parks, and to rescind all of the additional sheltering provisions imposed in the May 14 notice.
Reducing Harm in the Context of Two Public Health Emergencies
As we communicated to you in our letters dated May 19, 2020, the BCCLA, UBCIC and Pivot Legal Society are deeply concerned about the vulnerability of people with inadequate housing whose wellbeing is threatened not only by the COVID-19 pandemic, but also by the persisting opioid overdose public health emergency. Indigenous people in British Columbia are made disproportionately vulnerable on both fronts, and reconciliation therefore remains a foundational priority in times of crisis.
Daily displacement due to inadequate housing and bylaw enforcement is always harmful, and even moreso during the COVID-19 state of emergency. We commended your decision not to take down homeless people’s temporary shelters until the provincial emergency declaration in relation to the pandemic is lifted. This remains an obvious measure to enable people to protect themselves and others from the spread of COVID-19.
The overdose emergency compounds the risk of harm faced by vulnerable people in your city. Last month’s total deaths represent the highest number of illicit drug toxicity deaths ever recorded in a month in B.C. – 170. More people died from fatal overdoses in May than all the COVID-19 deaths combined to date.1 The Coroners Service drew particular attention to Vancouver Island in their May 2020 report; Island Health surpassed its highest monthly toll ever recorded by 36% (38 deaths in May; previous high was 28 deaths in Jan and Mar 2018).2 Victoria is listed alongside Vancouver and Surrey as the “townships experiencing the highest number of illicit drug toxicity deaths in 2020.”
Allowing people to shelter in parks can mitigate the risks of using illicit drug through peer witnessing, harm reduction and the provision of privacy. Encampments are operating as de facto overdose prevention sites – with peers responding to rapidly to otherwise fatal overdoses. There is a lower risk of overdosing if people do not have to use illicit drugs alone and in the dark.
Inadequate Housing and Survival Services in Victoria
We understand that there are approximately 120 people sheltering in Victoria’s parks and in other locations such as doorways and sidewalks. Even with the moratorium on renter evictions, people continue to become newly homeless.
Survival services remain limited in Victoria. Outreach organizations are only starting to figure out mobile delivery systems for survival basics. The emerging system will be undermined if people are forced to dismantle their shelters each day and move. At the time of the decampment of Pandora and Topaz there was an outcry from local outreach and health professionals over how the displacement undermined existing client relationships. Pivot Legal Society pulled together 15 statements, representing more than 20 peers, advocates and health professionals speaking to the harms of displacement, including the ways in which it undermined service provision and community relationships.3 Returning to a policy of daily displacement will replicate these harms for the foreseeable future.