Parliament Video: Jenny in the House: On gendered violence, homelessness, overdose deaths, & "the indispensability of every single person"

On December 7, MP Kwan stood in the House to respond to the Concurrence Motion Debate on Department spending Estimates. Jenny's response to the estimates of departmental spending is to raise the devastation that has taken place in the DTES as a result of this pandemic, and naming the actual concurrent crises that are taking place in Vancouver East: the housing & homelessness crisis, the epidemic of deaths by accidental overdose due to a poisoned drug supply, poverty, and the stark increase in reports of violence against women; and calling on the government to enact the coordinated responses necessary to actually address these problems, in collaboration with the community, and to act with an urgency comparable to the urgency taken in response to the covid-19 pandemic.

Jenny Kwan (NDP) Vancouver East, BC

"Madam Speaker, the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought unspeakable devastation on the Downtown Eastside community in the heart of my riding.

The Downtown Eastside is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Vancouver, and the diversity of its community members reflect its rich history. It is a community that has remained strong and deeply resilient despite the many challenges and struggles that come with poverty and a long history of colonization. The stigma against the people who live in the community is so strong, especially for those who are drug users or those who are homeless, that their struggles, their lack of access to basic human needs like housing, that the violence committed against them and even their deaths have been normalized to the extent that people no longer seem to care.

Recently, a disturbing video emerged where women appeared to be sexually assaulted in broad daylight, yet nobody did anything to help. Similar stories of horrific tragedy have emerged from the Downtown Eastside throughout the pandemic. A woman gave birth in a portable toilet and no one had noticed. The baby did not survive. Another woman was held captive and screaming in a tent for 15 hours, and no one intervened. Countless other reports of violence against women emerge from the Downtown Eastside, always tragic and always accompanied by apathy.

Similar apathy seems to exist for people who are struggling with substance misuse. More than 1,000 people have died in B.C. from overdose this year to date. This is an average of five deaths per day.

Street homelessness continues to increase amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Public health officials have made it clear that one of the most effective measures to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus is to stay home, keep social distance and wash our hands frequently. Needless to say, people without homes or adequate housing cannot self-isolate and cannot maintain the level of hygiene to keep themselves and others safe.

The Downtown Eastside now has one of the highest COVID infection rates in the city and the community members are suffering from violence, homelessness and the devastating impact of the overdose crisis at the same time.

The government says that addressing violence against women is a priority, that addressing homelessness and the opioid crisis are priorities, but its actions echo the apathy that have allowed these horrific deaths and acts of violence to perpetuate in our communities.

As 230,000 Canadians experience homelessness each year, the government continues to repeat the tired lines of 3,000 units of housing under the rapid housing initiative when the homelessness problem is so much bigger. The national housing strategy only aims to build 150,000 units of affordable housing over 10 years, effectively saying that it is acceptable to leave close to 100,000 Canadians without homes.

With this attitude, is it any wonder that homelessness has become accepted and normalized? The government has still not committed to the 50/50 cost-sharing with the Province of B.C. Nor has it committed to the recovery for all policy recommendations to end homelessness in Canada or the CHRA's indigenous caucus call for indigenous by indigenous calls for action. These commitments would truly make a difference in the lives and safety of Canadians.

With the opioid overdose crisis killing more people in B.C. than the COVID-19 pandemic, the government still has not committed to decriminalization as called for by the City of Vancouver. While all advocates of decriminalization, myself included, acknowledge that decriminalization is not a silver bullet, it is an important measure to help stem the tide of overdose deaths. Importantly, decriminalization is an important step to ending the stigma against drug users, a stigma that allows for the deaths and struggles of drug users to be normalized.

Every year, the Megaphone Magazine, sold on the streets by the homeless and low-income vendors, produces a beautiful calendar called “Hope in Shadows”. The photos in the calendar are taken by the magazine vendors and are beautiful images of the community seen through the eyes of community members themselves. The photos in the calendar capture images of children, friends, families and their pets. They live, work and play in the community. Other photos feature images of community activism, art, front-line workers and acts of caring. The calendar showcases the Downtown Eastside, a community that truly, once the stigma is removed, is a community of vibrant people, each with loved ones, hopes and dreams.

It is time for the government to take leadership in treating the community as such and to show, with concrete urgent action, that we care about the community and that our community members are not dispensable.

One urgent order of action is ensuring the availability and priority of COVID-19 vaccines for community members. In a briefing provided to MPs, we were informed that the priority vaccines would be given to individuals of advanced age, health care workers, first responders and indigenous peoples. I am deeply concerned that this list of priorities misses many people who are equally vulnerable and in need, many of whom reside and work in the Downtown Eastside.

The Downtown Eastside has the highest COVID infection rate in the city. Many residents have pre-existing conditions and other health concerns that make them especially vulnerable to the virus. The lack of safe, adequate and affordable housing in the community makes other safety measures, such as self-isolation and frequent handwashing, nearly impossible.

At the same time, I am deeply concerned about the safety of front-line workers in the Downtown Eastside. Front-line workers play just as much of an important role in fighting the pandemic as workers in health care settings, but they work in environments where it is extremely challenging to keep sanitary and safe.

Just today, we learned that there will only be enough vaccines to cover approximately 125,000 people later this month. That is not even enough to cover the 225,000 seniors in long-term care homes. Until there is a vaccine available for everyone, the government needs to do more to keep people safe.

A second urgent priority action for the government is to address violence against women in the Downtown Eastside. Three women's groups in the Downtown Eastside have called for the immediate creation of a task force to end violence against women in the neighbourhood. I call on the government to take immediate action and commit to lead that work. Gendered violence and violence against women are not new. Just yesterday, we commemorated the 14 women killed in the École Polytechnique massacre. With the COVID-19 pandemic, gendered violence and intimate-partner violence have increased exponentially. A women's crisis line in my riding reported early in the pandemic that crisis phone calls increased by 400% in the first months of the pandemic.

Long before the pandemic, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified access to safe housing and safe spaces as fundamental to the safety of women and girls and 2SLGBTQ people. The pandemic has further eroded access to the safe housing and safe spaces that were already scarce before the pandemic. The government must meet immediately with these groups, work collaboratively with advocates to establish the task force in the Downtown Eastside, and develop and fund an immediate action plan to end violence against women.

The government must also immediately respond to the City of Vancouver's request for an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act within the city's boundaries. In fact, I would urge the government to go even further and enact a nationwide exemption to jump-start the process of decriminalizing drug use to save lives.

For any of these measures to have lasting impact, people's basic needs must be met. For people to be safe from violence and disease long term, every Canadian must have access to safe housing. The government must act immediately and commit to fifty-fifty cost sharing with B.C. and to the recovery for all policy recommendations to end homelessness in Canada.

The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented health emergency that has deeply impacted the lives of Canadians across the country. At the same time, it has exacerbated crises that existed before the pandemic, including gendered violence, the opioid crisis and the homelessness crisis. None of these crises can be addressed alone. If we truly want to successfully address these crises together, we need a coordinated intersectional response enacted with the urgency of our crisis response to the pandemic and delivered with a firm commitment to the indispensability of every single person living in Canada.

There have been too many deaths and tragedies already. We must leave no one behind. We can do this. It takes political will. It takes courage. It takes all of us to realize the realities and the value of every single person in our community. Humanity is what is needed at this time of crisis, and we need to recognize that no community is dispensable. Everyone is someone's mother, someone's daughter, someone's son, someone's aunt. We all have to—"

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