SRO evictions increasing overdose risk and homelessness in Vancouver

published on March 26, 2019

Vancouver – Coast Salish Territory – Housing policies in Vancouver single room occupancy (SRO) hotels are failing to protect people who use drugs, driving the homelessness crisis and contributing to overdose risk, say researchers from the BC Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU) and University of British Columbia (UBC).

In a study published today in the ­International Journal of Drug Policy, researchers documented how shortcomings in housing policies are leading to evictions among people who use drugs. Many of these evictions are done unlawfully, further exacerbating Vancouver’s homelessness crisis, with many evicted from private and non-profit SRO housing forced into homelessness where they are at increased risk of overdose and other health harms.

People experiencing homelessness who also use drugs are especially impacted by the overdose emergency. In a report on homeless deaths in BC released last week, the BC Coroners Service found that in 2016, 175 people died while living on the streets or in shelters. Of those, 86% of accidental deaths and 53% of all deaths resulted from unintentional drug and/or alcohol poisoning. In previous years (2007-2015), this category accounted for 63% of accidental deaths and 34% of all deaths on average, suggesting increasing risk of harms, including mortality, for people using drugs while on the streets.

“We desperately need policy changes to increase housing security, particularly for low-income people and people who use drugs,” says Dr. Ryan McNeil, research scientist at BCCSU and assistant professor at UBC. “We heard countless stories about landlords targeting people specifically for their drug use and unlawfully evicting them, including evictions without notice and in contravention of the Residential Tenancy Act. In the context of overlapping homelessness and overdose crises, it’s not an exaggeration to say these policies are also life-threatening.”

Researchers interviewed more than 50 low-income people living on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside who had experienced an eviction. Study participants recounted experiences that created a climate of housing vulnerability, including prejudice against people who use drugs and an inability to assert power in the face of abusive landlords and unsafe conditions. They also shared experiences with evictions-related processes, which were characterized by gaps in tenancy protections that created questions regarding the lawfulness of evictions, as well as dispute resolution processes that were inaccessible to, and stacked against them.

Overall, researchers found most study participants were evicted unlawfully and unfairly. They also found that existing residential tenancy laws and current dispute mechanisms failed to protect tenants, making them even more vulnerable to eviction and landlord retaliation when they did dispute the eviction notice.

“The experiences documented in this study are reflected in the lives of people across BC,” says DJ Larkin, an experienced housing rights lawyer who has represented vulnerably housed people and people experiencing homelessness. “While residential tenancy laws and policies are intended to ensure adequate process and fairness, the inadequacy of the dispute resolution system and the power imbalance between marginalized tenants and landlords can result in a devastating cycle of evictions and homelessness.”

The study authors conclude that housing policy reforms – alongside drug policy reforms – that are more responsive to the needs of people who use drugs and address the structural oppressions impacting drug-using populations are urgently needed. These reforms include ending the targeting of people who use drugs; enforcing standards of maintenance that lead to many disputes; ending unlawful eviction practices by enacting formal dispute mechanisms; and providing more supports for tenants in dispute resolution.