Why is Vancouver’s Vision dominated city council going to court to defend an attack on homeless people started by its predecessor, the NPA? And if City Hall is willing to spend money to go to court and defend the right of business people to move homeless people off the street, why won’t it go to court to fine slumlords for poor conditions in SRO hotels?
Last week the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (Downtown BIA) and City of Vancouver were in court trying to prove that a program they started in the year 2000 didn’t discriminate against people who are Indigenous or have disabilities like drug addiction.
The court case was about who can occupy public space. Among other things, the program sent staff people out in the neighbourhood to move people who were sleeping on the street. In an article in the Metro, Raji Mangat, Director of Litigation at West Coast LEAF, says “People were harassed and bullied into leaving, told they needed to leave public areas of downtown Vancouver simply on the basis that they were an eyesore, or viewed as undesirable to be in those places.” The Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), which brought the original case, said that the Ambassadors were targeting homeless people and telling them to move along when they had no place to go. It’s illegal to discriminate against people because they are disabled or because they are Indigenous and a large percentage of homeless people are either disabled or Indigenous or both.
In 2015 VANDU won a BC Supreme Court decision that the BIA’s Downtown Ambassadors program, partially funding by the City of Vancouver, was discriminatory.
Now the City and the BIA are appealing the Supreme Court ruling. West Coast LEAF and the Community Legal Assistance Society are intervening in the case which was heard on October 5th and 6th.
“People of Indigenous ancestry and people with disabilities, including those with addictions, are vastly overrepresented in Vancouver’s homeless population. We know that these individuals already face multiple, intersecting barriers to equal protection under the law,” says Mangat. “What value does the law have if it isn’t available to safeguard the human rights of the most marginalized among us?”
Some rhetoric of the Vision council might lead you to assume they would celebrate VANDU’s anti-discrimination win. For example, at the unveiling of the West End Sex Work Memorial in September, Vision Councilor Andrea Reimer spoke forcefully against anti-sex worker discrimination and the City’s 1984 illegal injunction that armed police with the power to target and remove sex workers from the streets of the West End. The memorial, Reimer said, should be “a reminder to me and our community that justice has to live for everyone or it lives for none of us.” The City stopped short of an apology for the displacement (which memorial advocate Becki Ross called “a measure of the tenacity and stubbornness of whorephobia”) but Reimer seemed to nonetheless stand for “justice for all.” Yet now, with homelessness growing at an alarming rate, the same Vision Council goes to court to fight for the right of businesses to remove Indigenous and disabled homeless people off the street.
How much money is the city spending on its lawyers? Why couldn’t the lawyers be doing something useful like going to court to fine slumlords who refuse to provide decent maintenance and management? Why is a council that was first elected on a promise to end homelessness in court trying to justify pushing homeless people out of public space? Here’s one possibility: Right now in Vancouver city workers and trucks and police go around virtually every morning telling homeless people that they have to move and taking their stuff if they don’t move it. Could it be that city lawyers think the city’s own actions in pushing homeless people off the street every morning in the Downtown Eastside may not be legal? The Vision council may cynically posture around the rights of people vulnerable to displacement and violence in the past, but their court case to overturn the rights of Indigenous and disabled homeless people shows where their priorities really lie.