Car dwellers—how we are failing Vancouver's invisible homeless population

Against the deeply troubling backdrop of our city’s housing calamity, it comes as no surprise that Stanley Q. Woodvine’s article was one of the most popular reads in the Georgia Straight this past week.

In it, Woodvine sheds crucial light on a population that rarely comes to mind in mainstream considerations of homelessness: “car dwellers” who are living in a “housing of last resort”.

Specifically, Woodvine describes the situation of car dwellers who were parked at the elbow of Evans and Glen and how city officials have been treating them with hostility, ultimately resulting in an order to leave on January 25.

After they were forced to leave, Woodvine attempts to get to the bottom of exactly which arm of the city (bylaw enforcement, park board, police) is responsible for their swift displacement. At the time of the writing of this op-ed, his investigation remains inconclusive. 

While it is not our intention to find out who was behind this order to vacate, we intend to bring attention to the ways this incident is connected to the broader trend of pathologizing poor people and those who are precariously sheltered, deepening their exclusion from the society that’s already failed them.

Indeed, we’ve seen this all before, too. Recall last October when the media ran stories of two senior women living in their van in West Vancouver. Fastforward to this week with Woodvine’s story as well as the stories about the Vancouver Police Department’s increased presence and crackdown in the Downtown Eastside.

While forces of inequity cause people to sleep on sidewalks and in cars and tent cities, their right to exist in these spaces is often called into question or criminalized through anti-homeless, anti-poor bylaws and other dehumanizing strategies that deny them basic human dignity.

For its part, the city must ensure that its actions don’t further harm or stigmatize those living in precarious housing and shelter situations. As record low vacancy rates, insufficient rent control, and a serious shortage of social housing continues, the city must take immediate steps to significantly relax bylaw and police enforcement against those living in ad hoc housing conditions. 

While we must push for immediate remedies to de-escalate the stigmatization of homelessness and poverty, let’s also keep our eyes on the biggest objective of all: safe, secure, and appropriate housing for everyone. U.K. Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn proposed solving the country’s housing crisis by immediately purchasing 8,000 empty properties to combat homelessness, taxing the wealthiest landowners, and building publicly owned housing to the tune of 100,000 homes a year.

Here in Vancouver, we must demand equally bold measures from all levels of government: stronger rent controls to protect tenants from renovictions and impossibly high rent hikes; a speculation tax; and an ambitious and progressive tax on the wealthiest property owners to build social, supportive and affordable housing and purpose-built rentals throughout the city, so that no one ever has to live in a housing of last resort. 

To paraphrase Anatole France, “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep” in cars.

In times like these, with our city tortured  by perilously low vacancy rates and runaway housing costs, we must be braver and bolder in our solutions.

 

Brandon Yan is a former City of Vancouver planning commissioner. Cara Ng is a founding member of OneCity and a feminist health researcher.

This article can be found online at the Georgia Straight.


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