August 23, 2022
The Honourable Ahmed Hussen
Minister of Housing and Diversity and Inclusion House of Commons
OAawa, Ontario K1A 0A6
Sent via email: [email protected]
Dear Minister Hussen,
Follow-Up Open Letter Re: Urgent Housing Crisis Emergency
We write you with renewed urgency about how the ongoing national housing crisis affects residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES). The dire and life-threatening situation facing unhoused people will not resolve without federal leadership and immediate intervention and we plead for your action. The situation is a mounting human rights crisis as governments are failing to ensure the right to safe dignified shelter to those most in need and requires an urgent distinction and rights-based approach.
Fire officials issued an order on July 25 to immediately disperse an encampment of hundreds of unhoused disproportionately Indigenous people seeking shelter and community together in tents along East Hastings Street, citing serious fire safety concerns. Yet: there is nowhere for people to go and residents are being increasingly targeted by threats of violence and criminalized by authorities. Although fire safety is the rationale for displacing unhoused people, fires are also a serious and deadly concern in low-income housing in the DTES. In August 2022 alone, there were multiple fires in Single Room Occupancy(SROs) buildings, which have destroyed the homes of dozens of low income residents. A coroner’s inquest is currently underway following a deadly fire in an SRO in July 2022.
There remains an encampment of people seeking relative safety together in CRAB Park in the Downtown Eastside, which is on federal government lands, because there are not enough safe affordable homes for people to move to. Previous encampments at Oppenheimer Park and Strathcona Park have also been forced to decamp since 2018. In August 2020, MP Kwan joined with MLA Melanie Mark and Mayor Kennedy Stewart calling on your government to urgently enter into a 50/50 cost sharing agreement with the province to build more supportive housing and acquire new housing stock as part of the provincial government decampment strategy. Your federal government did not respond and has failed to meaningfully implement the right to housing for those who have sheltered in these encampments. The result is that there simply is not enough social housing to provide safe, affordable, dignified homes for the hundreds, if not thousands, of people surviving on the streets of Vancouver who desperately need a safe home.
Decades of inaction on building social housing by successive Liberal and Conservative federal governments followed the 1993 cancellation of the National Housing Program. Coupled with displacement caused by real estate development, reno-victions, demo-evictions, and financialization of housing including by financial landlords, REITS and private equity firms; exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic; and escalated even further by the overdose crisis and recent heatwaves.The situation has become deadly, with a recent BC Coroners Death Review Panel finding that 19% of people that fatally overdosed lived in social housing or shelters, while an additional 12% were homeless. Vancouver Police Department statistics report that at least 225 homeless people died in Vancouver in the last five years. Unhoused people have also been subjected to violence on the streets of Vancouver. There are real fears that homeless people are being targeted with violence, including concerns of targeting killings. Advocates and the unhoused alike are worried that what happened in the BC town of Langley could happen here and we share those concerns.
Blatant racism and the colonial history of Canada has compounded the problem and has meant that the brunt of this deadly crisis has fallen upon Indigenous peoples. There are currently more than 2,000 identified homeless individuals in the city - and this number, based on a pre- pandemic point-in-time survey, is likely an undercounting. A disproportionate number of the unhoused population is Indigenous: about 40%, meaning that Indigenous peoples are nearly 18 times more likely to be homeless in Vancouver compared to their presence in the general population. We note that the same survey also found Black people are significantly over- represented and are 3.7 times more likely to experience homelessness in Vancouver – making all too evident the part that systemic discriminaGon holds in determining who is most impacted by the housing crisis.
The Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) has long decried the systemic inequities that marginalize and disenfranchise Indigenous peoples, culminating in precariously and unhoused communities. UBCIC Resolutions 2020-34; 2021-23; 2021-27; and 2021-22 call for greater government support for affordable First Nations specific housing, Indigenous youth facing homelessness – olen as they transition from the child welfare system, and improvements to the Downtown Eastside’s CRAB Park.
The elevated dangers of this crisis for women, and especially for Indigenous women, must also be noted. Increasingly since the pandemic, women and children have faced a rise in domestic and gender-based violence in what the UN has labelled a Shadow Pandemic. In recent days, one woman was found to have been shot and injured; another woman was attacked and set on fire by an unknown person, causing severe injuries; and several missing Indigenous women and girls have been found deceased, including a young 24-year old woman, and 14-year old Noelle O’Soup, a First Nations girl who was in the child welfare system at the time of her death. Another 20-year old Indigenous woman last seen in the Downtown Eastside has been missing for three months. This is causing great alarm that some person or persons could be targeting Indigenous women in the neighbourhood, and that unhoused women are at escalated risk.
The final report of the National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit People cited housing and homelessness over 200 times. Indigenous women are not inherently vulnerable. This is a result of colonization. Access to safe, secure, and affordable housing is an essential component in stopping this genocide.
Reported data also consistently shows that the overwhelming majority of people in Vancouver who are unhoused, at least 86%, face serious health concerns and challenges. These are people with disabilities, physical or psychosocial; they may also face chronic substance use issues, chronic illness, physical or mental illness. About one in four lives with an acquired brain injury. Whether you look at this through a health lens, a harm reduction lens, or a disability justice lens, the continued failure to provide safe, affordable, dignified social housing is absolutely a major contributing factor to poor and deteriorating health outcomes for people who are unhoused. The social determinants of health cannot be met while surviving on the street and provision of housing should be additionally seen as supporting improved individual and public health.
MP Kwan wrote you on Wednesday, August 3, 2022, to bring the latest developments in this emergency to your attention and to seek a response that is commensurate to the needs of the community.
However, with no response from you, we write to escalate these concerns again to your eyes and ears, as the lives of our unhoused neighbours and community members depend upon your actions.
We jointly call on your government to urgently ensure safe housing and supports for the many hundreds of unhoused people in crisis in the Downtown Eastside, and beyond, and to address the long-term systemic issues facing members of community by coordinating across levels of government, and working in collaboration with non-governmental organizations, to re-establish the Vancouver Agreement.
We also jointly call on you to immediately and meaningfully fund the For Indigenous, By Indigenous Urban, Rural, and Northern Indigenous Housing and Homelessness Strategy – as your government has promised to do since 2017, and, as you were instructed to do in your 2021 Mandate Letter.
The longstanding history of injunctions and moving campers from one place to another will not resolve this crisis. It is imperative that the federal government show leadership on this issue and meet its obligations to address the housing and homelessness crisis in our communities.
The Vancouver Agreement’s multi-partite initiative in the past successfully brought all levels of government together to support social, economic and community development in Vancouver, with a specific focus on the Downtown Eastside. It has become abundantly clear to us that the systemic issues facing unhoused people in the Downtown Eastside will not resolve without such a renewed commitment of federal leadership, intervention, and resources to amplify and scale up the existing efforts of provincial and municipal governments, Indigenous partners and Indigenous-led organizations, and non-government organizations.
We again extend to you an invitation for you to meet with us in the community, to tour CRAB Park, to meet with unhoused people and to hear their voices. Your government cannot look away from this crisis or ignore its role and it is incumbent upon you as the Minister of Housing to direct your Gme, energy, and resources to addressing these concerns.
The housing and homelessness crisis is a failure of policy and resources – but, it is also a problem that can be solved, through immediate intervention, through shared resources and collaboration, through a distinctions and rights based approach, and through your action. The power to enact the solutions is at your call, Minister.
We seek your urgent response and stand ready to work with you immediately on this urgent matter.
MP for Vancouver East NDP Critic for Housing
On behalf of the UNION OF BC INDIAN CHIEFS
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip