Vancouver is experiencing a colder than usual winter and with temperatures dropping well below freezing, city residents are forced to navigate heavy snowfall. With this cold snap, people living at Oppenheimer Park and others who rely on public space for shelter must contend with a multitude of competing health and safety risks. As City officials continue to deny basic health necessities like heat and power to Oppenheimer Tent City, keeping warm is becoming increasingly impossible.
We recently sent letters calling on both Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services (VFRS) and the City of Vancouver to “meet people where they are” and provide warming options for those who will inevitably remain outside in the cold this season. No one is claiming that tent cities are utopias, but they are a critical people-driven response to the housing and opioid crises. Displacement will not solve the (government-driven) housing shortage, and the City and Province have an obligation to ensure people’s basic needs are met.
Photo: Sozan Savehilaghi - Pivot Legal Society | Oppenheimer Park residents hit with heavy snowfall without on-site warming options.Read more
Health, Heat, and Homelessness: CCAP and Pivot respond to Park Board decampment plan for Oppenheimer Tent City amidst ongoing safety concerns
December 20, 2019 – International Human Solidarity Day
Unceded Territory of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations.
Photo Credit: Daily Hive | Oppenheimer Park | Retrieved Dec 10, 2019
10 days ago, Oppenheimer Park Tent City residents learned the Vancouver Park Board’s latest plans for decampment. At the final scheduled Park Board meeting of the year, Board Members voted on a motion that directed staff to work with partners to “further the voluntary decampment plan, supported by an injunction once conditions are met.” Two days after the announcement, a non-lethal shooting at the Park became a political pawn, wherein decisionmakers leveraged the incident to further the proposed decampment strategy.
Earlier that same week, a 20-person brawl broke out in Yaletown, which didn’t prompt a single call for the closure of Hamilton or Helmcken Streets.
Manipulating a Crime and Violence Narrative to Back Decampment
While a shooting is nothing short of terrifying, and we hope the survivor recovers quickly, this incident became a focal point in a debate embroiling Oppenheimer Park residents, advocates, municipal policymakers, and law enforcement. One article asked, “will someone have to die before the City of Vancouver acts to address an entrenched homeless camp in Oppenheimer Park?” The shooting, an aberration by all measures, took precedence over chronic safety issues that shape the everyday lives of people who rely on public space and live in the Tent City at Oppenheimer. The narrative of criminal activity and gun violence has been consistently used to skew public perceptions of park safety. Sensationalist narratives, largely originating within the ranks of the Vancouver Police Department, have been adopted uncritically, despite data analysis that contradicts the VPD’s fearmongering.
Gun violence remains an infinitesimal portion of the mortality risks faced by people who rely on public space. The BC Coroners Service reports that the overwhelming majority of deaths of homeless people are accidental, and of those, the vast majority are linked to drug and alcohol poisoning (refer to Table 1 and 2 below). Fundamentally, people are dying because of the colonial policies resulting in displacement, dislocation, and genocide of Indigenous peoples. People are dying because governments have failed to invest in long-term solutions to the housing crisis. People are dying because there is no Safe Supply.
We want to be clear – the dominant safety concerns at Oppenheimer are the tainted drug supply, zero safe tent-heating options, and the absence of adequate, affordable housing options.
We want to be clear – the dominant safety concerns at Oppenheimer are the tainted drug supply, zero safe tent-heating options, and the absence of adequate, affordable housing options. Unlike shootings, these concerns don’t generate outrage or moral panic, nor do they prompt any level of government to vote for decisive, meaningful policies. The Tent City at Oppenheimer cannot resolve these systemic issues, but in the absence of tangible change, it has become an irreplaceable site of harm reduction, community, and collective struggle.
Response to Decampment Plans
Over the years, Oppenheimer has been home to many Tent Cities. Most of these communities have been extinguished by city-mediated decampment efforts, typically involving court injunctions. These injunctions, paired with stigmatizing bylaws, have effectively trapped people who rely on public space in a compounding cycle of criminalization. We must ask: how many cycles of displacement will we go through before the government accepts that evicting people from public parks is a meaningless and expensive solution?
Photo Credit: Carnegie Community Action Project | CCAP members holding a banner that reads "WE CAN'T AFFORD POVERTY" | October 15, 2019
The recent Park Board motion authorizes staff to seek an injunction if “certain [unspecified] conditions” are met. The Park Board does not specify the conditions, nor does it elaborate about plans for a “third party to conduct an independent assessment of the current situation in Oppenheimer Park.” The Park Board press statement proclaims a commitment to principles of reconciliation and consultation, but without any clear mechanisms or accountability checks. For Oppenheimer residents, the announcement and plan for decampment came as a surprise. Residents have been meeting with the Parks Board and BC Housing for months.
The demand for safe, affordable, and permanent housing remains non-negotiable.
Since August, residents have been clear that the Park Board, City, Police, Fire, BC Housing, and social service staff must make decisions through collaboration with them. The demand for safe, affordable, and permanent housing remains non-negotiable. Decampment plans that rely on temporary shelters (including the Extreme Weather Response program or temporary shelters) are unproductive and fail to resolve systemic issues. Even the City of Vancouver’s Housing and Homelessness Strategy notes that “the uncertainty around opening and closure procedures for seasonal shelters each year creates challenges for everyone.” Collaboration between the City and BC Housing has also left Tent City residents skeptical. In the summer, news of the Supportive Housing Registry waitlist freeze broke, and residents learned that vacant units had been left sitting empty for months until BC housing had amassed a stock of 100 units. Freezing BC Housing units creates a bottleneck for anyone who needs emergency housing. The Supportive Housing Registry cannot be artificially inflated for the sole purpose of evicting park residents, as was attempted unsuccessfully in the summer.
Oppenheimer Tent City as a Site of Harm Reduction, Healthcare, and Peer Support
Amidst sensationalist headlines dominated by violence at the Park, local policymakers jockey to deploy the most “effective” responses to the Tent City. These effective responses are proposed while there has been a gradual – potentially fatal – withdrawal of essential hygiene, civic, and health services that were previously available in the park. Failure to support the basic, everyday needs of Tent City residents and lack of communication leaves Tent City residents scrambling for survival. It was bad enough in the summer, but now residents must also grapple with cold seasonal weather conditions that can cause or exacerbate chronic health issues – including hypothermia, pneumonia, trench foot, or complications from existing health conditions.
When Tent City residents attempt to heat their tents, they effectively violate the Fire Chief’s order and resort to so-called “dangerous measures.” The City’s solution? Residents should leave behind their belongings and community, and go to the local warming centre – which only opens “when it feels like 0 degrees.” Refusing to resource tent cities while imposing strict conditions on them foments a situation where residents are set up to fail, reifying the government’s justification for rapid decampment. Despite inadequate solutions and stigmatizing narratives, peers have continued to support Tent City residents, including regular Park inreach by the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society and DUDES Club.
It would be foolish to claim things don’t go wrong in the Park: yes, there are fires at Oppenheimer (and other Tent Cities). But when there is a fire, people respond; the same way people respond when there is an overdose. Residents respond because they know - this is a person, a friend, a companion, they help. Peers cannot respond when people are pushed into isolation, into corners where no one sees them when they are in distress. An Overdose Prevention Site has been operating in the Park since August, ensuring folks who use substances have access to a 24/7 peer-run safe consumption site. In the context of the continuing drug poisoning crisis, this fixed site enables witnessed consumption, provision of sterile gear, and access to peer support. These are vital interventions that ensure people who rely on public space are not using alone or in isolation.
Photo Credit: Carnegie Community Action Project | Overdose Prevention Site at Oppenheimer Park | August 28, 2019
Looking Back, Looking Ahead
As we close out this year and look back on the past few months, we commend the steadfast, principled advocacy of Oppenheimer Park Tent City residents. We stand in solidarity with the assertion of Indigenous sovereignty in the Park. As long as people must rely on public space, we must respect Tent Cities as the safest option in a list of undesirable alternatives. Current efforts to evicting Oppenheimer Park assuage the consciences of some housed constituents and housed policymakers’ paternalistic need to “do something.” There is, however, no evidence to indicate that a conditional injunction will make the community safer. Realistically, forced decampment and displacement from Oppenheimer Park will merely kick off the next cycle of dislocation, inevitably resulting in a tent city. Displacement is never the answer.
The only way to stop this cycle is to house people.
In solidarity with those living at Oppenheimer Park,
Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) & Pivot Legal Society
On International Overdose Awareness Day, we remember and fight for those we have lost to a senseless war on drugs
We demand evidence-based solutions, not fear-based drug policy!
Drug prohibition has utterly failed in its aims. People will always use drugs; but with virtually no access to a safe and regulated drug supply, they risk death by toxic policy. As governments across the world pledge allegiance to the failed War on Drugs, we grieve thousands. We cannot support a system that drives drug use further underground, frustrates access to critical health services, churns poor and racialized people through a violent criminal justice system, and continues to ignore the valid reasons why people use drugs. Our work is based on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations and cannot separate this toxic policy from the violence of settler-colonialism.Read more
On International Overdose Awareness Day, Pivot Legal Society calls on the British Columbia provincial government to take steps towards decriminalizing simple drug possession.
This is what happened to one of us – Kerry Porth, sex worker rights activist, educator, and scholar. Along with the other one of us – Genevieve Fuji Johnson, professor of political science at Simon Fraser University – Kerry was in Montreal to attend the 4th biennial International Conference of Public Policy. The day before, the presentation of our paper “Drugs and Sex: The Boundaries of Harm Reduction,” was well received by a small but interested audience. Afterwards, we met over coffee and croissants with members of our McGill-based research team to discuss our Canadian Institutes of Health Research collaboration, including plans for more research, conferences, and publications. It was a productive couple of days, further developing our work together and consolidating research partnerships with other academics and activists.
We have enjoyed a fruitful activist-academic relationship for about 7 years, producing a number of academic papers on prostitution policy and sex work governance. Sex work is controversial, even as a research area. We have faced our share of stigmatic remarks from peer reviewers of our writings and attendees at our presentations as we have worked to mainstream an evidence-based discussion about the harms of criminalizing prostitution and of conflating sex work with sex trafficking, within political science and public policy research-circles. Never did we think that our work would attract the attention of law enforcement in what was essentially a raid on Kerry’s hotel room in the dead of night.
(Photo Credit: Kerry Porth | Kerry Porth (left) and Genevieve Fuji Johnson (right) in Montreal | June 26, 2019)
No one disputes that human trafficking of any kind is a serious concern. However, often concerns about sex trafficking belie a powerful moralism that resists evidence and logic. This moralism feeds certain anti-trafficking campaigns that are more harmful than helpful, especially when those campaigns involve harnessing the surveillance powers of an archipelago of hotels, taxi companies, and ride-sharing apps.
Citizen Surveillance and Trafficking “Indicators”
In May 2019, the Montreal Police Service (SPVM) launched RADAR, an anti-trafficking program designed to enlist hotel staff and taxi drivers in identifying suspicious activity. For this program, the SPVM has partnered with police services in Laval and Longueuil, as well as with the Association des hôtels du Grand Montréal, the Montreal taxi bureau, Sun Youth, and the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime. Hotel staff and taxi drivers are encouraged to be especially vigilant during major sporting events.
RADAR is similar to initiatives implemented by hotels across North America, including the Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, and Wyndham. For several years, industry associations such as the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association and the American Hotel and Lodging Association have been partnering with anti-trafficking organizations like Polaris and ECPAT-USA, as well as with police departments. These initiatives include providing hotel employees with lists of indicators of trafficking that include the following: The guests having multiple computers and phones, large amounts of cash, and lots of alcohol, condoms, lube, and lingerie; refusing cleaning services; leaving minors in the room; infrequently leaving the room; frequently using the “Do not Disturb” sign; wearing provocative clothing and shoes; taking a lot of toiletries; asking for more towels; staying for long periods with few possessions; and renting more than one room. Some lists also include wearing large hats and sunglasses and children’s items in the room as possible indicators. Ride sharing apps and commercial airlines are also being enlisted in such anti-trafficking campaigns.
A serious issue with these indicators is that, like claims linking an increase in trafficking to major sports events, they are not based on evidence (see What’s the Cost of a Rumour? and SWAN Vancouver Toolkit). Another, perhaps more obvious, problem is that these indicator lists capture the behaviour of many people travelling for any number of reasons. When coupled with the post-911 dictum, “if you see something, say something,” these indicators have the potential of creating sleeper cells of hypervigilant anti-trafficking crusaders (see New York Times article and Washington Post article). Through these amateur agents, the state justifies its creep deeper into our private lives, and the consequences are far-reaching.
Were any of these activities and items the basis for the anonymous tip to the SPVM?
Or was the tip valid, perhaps from a “would-have-been” client who may have understood what he had unexpectedly walked into and decided to call the cops. Or perhaps it was from a sex worker with first-hand knowledge of a coercive situation taking place in the hotel. Perhaps there was, and still is, a victim of sexual exploitation in the hotel who wants to leave the trade and wants support in doing so. Perhaps the police got the wrong room.
We believe that the most likely explanation is that hotel staff with regular access to Kerry’s room were triggered by the research materials related to sex work on her desk (and perhaps also by little Sheepy). The Montreal Grand Prix had just finished and the Jazz Fest was soon to begin. Staff may have been extra vigilant and called the police just in case. The police responded. But, did they take the sex trafficking tip seriously? Or did they view it as an opportunity to harass a sex worker? Again, at 2:00 AM, two large police officers knocked on Kerry’s room door to ask her about a missing youth but they didn’t actually search her room. When Kerry followed up by phone from Vancouver with the SPVM a week later, she was told there was no record whatsoever of the visit.
(Photo Credit: Kerry Porth | Sheepy the stuffed lamb sits atop various research materials related to sex work | June 26, 2019)
Anti-Trafficking Campaigns are Harming Sex Workers and Victims of Sex Trafficking
There is growing evidence of the far-reaching harms of anti-trafficking campaigns implemented by the police, including those in partnership with the hospitality industry. As Elizabeth Nolan Brown writes, “carceral hospitality” has “largely wound up as law-enforcement-driven attacks on sex workers and their clients, on immigrants, and on other members of marginalized communities. Along the way, victims of actual trafficking are often swept up in the arrests and incarceration”. If they are non-citizens, this sweep can result in deportation.
Indeed, these programs may make it more difficult for real victims of both sexual exploitation and sex trafficking to come forward, seek the help they want, and receive that help. Those who have power over them may find more ways of keeping them hidden from well-publicized efforts to detect them. Additionally, by funding these programs, valuable resources are diverted from addressing deeper causes of trafficking and, im/migrants who are either exploited or trafficked may fear incarceration or deportation.
They also harm sex workers. Captured by the excessively broad net of initiatives are consenting adults engaging in transactional sex. These programs make sex workers reluctant to carry condoms, more mistrustful of law enforcement, and less likely to “seek help from law enforcement even if they are experiencing violence, abuse, harassment or exploitation”.
Moreover, these initiatives threaten the rights and freedoms of citizens – especially those of us who are racialized. Threats include those to mobility rights, personal security rights, and freedom of association. In November 2017, a twenty-something Asian American was detained en route home from vacationing in Mexico on the suspicion that she was a victim of trafficking. There have been other such cases as well (see this and this). We also believe that Kerry’s visit from the police would have been far different had she been Black or Indigenous instead of a middle-aged white woman. As the raid on Kerry’s room suggests, these initiatives may also pose threats to academic freedom. At the very least, the incident has caused us to think more carefully about hiding from sight any research materials we may have with us when we travel.
Finally, they also threaten the very concept of citizenship. These types of anti-trafficking initiatives represent a shift from an ideal of citizenship in which members of a political community have a responsibility to be critical of the state and to keep a vigilant eye on its exercise of power. The ideal citizen underlying programs such as RADAR is one in which they become an agent of the state blindly implementing its agenda.
How Can We Really End Human Trafficking?
We are not saying that trafficking doesn’t take place. It does in multiple sectors, including agriculture, manufacturing, and mining. But, the moral panic around sex trafficking has fueled approaches to addressing the problem that are wildly overreaching, causing harms to victims of sexual exploitation and coercion, to sex workers, to the general population, and to the social production of knowledge.
They are costly too. The Canadian National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking 2012 to 2016 cost $25 million. Incidentally, only 2% or $500,000 of this was to go to assist victims. As a part of 2014 changes to prostitution provisions in the Criminal Code, an additional $9.53 million was made available to law enforcement to address trafficking and exploitation in the sex industry.
We have to ask: Are such anti-trafficking programs a good idea? Have they been effective in combatting trafficking? Have they actually resulted in any convictions? Researchers Hayli Millar and Tamara O’Doherty report that, from 2006 to 2018 only 88 cases were prosecuted of the 937 charged persons in Canada, and, of these, less than 50% resulted in conviction (forthcoming 2019).
Given the harms, the costs, and the limited benefits, RADAR-esq initiatives need to be abandoned. If we really want to combat sexual exploitation and trafficking, a critical first step is public education about the differences among sexual exploitation, sex trafficking, and sex work (see Living in Community’s Sex Work 101). People engage in sex work for a wide range of reasons, for some it may include a lack of other employment options. Sometimes sex workers will travel across jurisdictions in order to work. Sex work occurring indoors – in condos or hotel rooms – is safer than that occurring on the streets (see Canada (Attorney General) v. Beford, Lebovitch, and Scott). None of these facts necessarily reduce sex work to sex exploitation or trafficking.
Anti-trafficking policies and programs need to be directly informed by sex workers, particularly those who experience multiple forms of overlapping oppressions, and their organizations. It is essential to center the voices of Indigenous sex workers in the development of these polices and programs. As Elene Lam and Annalee Lepp argue, we also need to radically center “the voices of Asian and migrant sex workers” and develop peer-based approaches to seriously addressing these forms of violence. Beyond destigmatizing sex workers, another crucial step in combatting sexual exploitation and trafficking is to decriminalize adult prostitution. Once decriminalized, prostitution can be governed by the same types of labour laws in other areas, and sex workers can receive the same protections as workers in other areas. Affordable housing and accessible education are also essential in any meaningful plan to combat sexual exploitation. Ultimately, municipal governments, including police departments need to work hard to gain the trust of sex workers and their advocacy and support organizations who are among the best positioned to identify victims of either sexual exploitation or sex trafficking and to refer them to trusted programs that can enable them to exit the trade should they choose to do so.
Trafficking is a serious crime and a gross violation of basic human rights. To respond to it, we need nothing less than an effective, evidence-based approach. We need this now.Read more
On April 1, 2019, the Director of Public Prosecutions directed federal Crown prosecutors to minimize detentions for breaches of bail conditions, in part by no longer imposing the following bail conditions on people experiencing addiction:
- ‘Abstinence’ conditions, which criminalize people who possess and use illicit drugs;
- Prohibitions on carrying ‘drug paraphernalia’, including pipes and syringes, which impede access to life-saving harm reduction equipment and healthcare; and
- Area restrictions (or “red zones”), which banish people from the spaces, services, and communities they rely on.
Bail conditions are court orders imposed on people who are charged with an offence, but who are not incarcerated. While conditions are intended to address the particular circumstances of an accused and the offence at issue, the majority of people we work with are subject to broad “behavioural conditions” designed to control their everyday activities. For example, someone charged with a drug-related offence might be released on bail with conditions that they not possess drugs or even the drug paraphernalia (harm reduction equipment) that allows for safer use. Someone charged with an offence might also be “red zoned”—or prohibited from being in a geographic area, oftentimes a city block or an entire neighbourhood, and the services located within. As one participant put it:
[The red zone is] where all your services are. That’s where your food is, that’s where your doctors are, that’s where mental health is, that’s where the library is, that’s where your harm reduction is… That’s where basically any kind of service for street people or homeless or low income [people], that’s where it is.
For people living at the intersections of homelessness, drug use, and class-based oppression, these bail conditions make daily activities and interactions more dangerous and near-impossible. Bail conditions have a particularly negative impact on Indigenous and Black communities, who are already subject to over-policing.Read more