More harm: Decamping and displacing unhoused people

Last week the City of Vancouver forcibly displaced people living in tents along Hastings Street on the Downtown Eastside. City workers and police removed people and their possessions, the majority of whom had nowhere else to go. Since then, people setting up structures on Hastings Street have been displaced daily.

Unfortunately, this strategy is one that is employed again and again, not just in Vancouver but in communities both large and small across the country.

Rather than constantly displacing people, an alternative approach that is grounded in evidence and respects the health, human rights, and needs of individuals is badly needed and long overdue.

Research from the BC Centre on Substance Use and elsewhere has consistently shown that evicting and displacing people creates more harms. Concerns about public disorder associated with encampments should be outweighed by the fact that the displacement of unhoused people destabilizes and exacerbates vulnerabilities – particularly amongst those who are homeless and use drugs, and especially in the context of a toxic drug supply.

The harms of being homeless and the absence of alternatives

The negative outcomes associated with homelessness are well-established. Our research has shown that people who experience unstable housing, particularly those who are evicted into homelessness, are more likely to be the target of physical and sexual violence. They are also more likely to have poorer health outcomes resulting from housing instability and experience prolonged homelessness. For young people, homelessness increases likelihood of substance use and a heightened risk of infectious disease transmission. Heightened surveillance, policing, and forcible removal can lead young people to disengage from even our most low-barrier services, as they relocate to more hidden locations across Metro Vancouver where they are often cut off from lifesaving care.

Harms are amplified when people are evicted from their communities where critical social supports are in place, including in settings such as the Hastings tent city. A recently published article, “It's no foundation, there's no stabilization, you're just scattered”: A qualitative study of the institutional circuit of recently-evicted people who use drugs, looked at these experiences. Those who were interviewed experienced frequent cycling between shelters, streets, and kin-based networks. And while they normalized this cycling as characteristic of their marginalized social positions, their experiences revealed how the demands of a constant cycle of displacement deepened vulnerabilities, prolonged experiences of homelessness, and created barriers to accessing health and social services – findings that are consistent with previous research.

Displacement and eviction presents a catch-22 scenario for unhoused people. Our research has pointed to the fact that what is currently being offered for shelter and temporary housing is not suitable for many people given their individual needs and histories. For instance, mechanisms such as hyper-surveillance within some low-income housing environments has amplified gendered violence and health related harms. For many people, a tent on the street is a better and safer alternative to a mat on a floor or even a room in a setting where gender- and drug market-based violence commonly occurs.


Policing unhoused people

In addition, the police presence during the recent decampment of unhoused people in Vancouver impacted access to substance use services and overdose response.

Research has shown how surveillance and policing of people who use drugs and police presence near harm reduction and other health services discourages access, with those who are Indigenous, racialized and gender diverse most impacted due to their heightened scrutiny and visibility to police. In the midst of an ongoing toxic drug poisoning crisis, disruptions in service access could have deadly outcomes.

Furthermore, forcible eviction by police adds to the trauma that many homeless people who use drugs live with. This trauma contributes to difficulties accessing health and social services, and exacerbates substance use-related harm at the individual level. It also contradicts the intentions of the provincial pilot into drug decriminalization, which is meant to reduce police interactions.


A national problem

Unfortunately, tent cities and violent evictions from them are not a phenomenon unique to Vancouver. Regardless of the setting, encampments are the natural outcome of growing inequality, a weakening of the social safety net, and unaffordable housing.

Prince George, Abbotsford, Calgary, Lethbridge, Kitchener, and Toronto – to name just a handful of the dozens of communities – have all seen people rely on tent cities and responded with similar eviction processes.

This displacement of unhoused people in Vancouver and elsewhere was the not the first and will not be the last without strategies to house people that meets their individual needs. Rather than a policing-based approach to addressing homelessness, supporting community-based health services and affordable housing, alongside expanded tenancy rights for low-income residents, would be a far more effective approach.

Photo of the Hastings Street decampment on April 6 by Dean Wilson