On July 25th, Vancouver Fire Rescue Services (VFRS) issued a Fire Order calling for the removal of all tents from the Hastings Tent City within three days. This is not the first time that a fire order has been used in Vancouver as a tactic for displacing people who rely on public space due to living in poverty, and it’s one of many reasons why Pivot Legal Society adds its voice to the decades-old call to have human rights laws protect people against discrimination based on their social condition.
We define a person’s social condition as “inclusion in a socially identifiable group that suffers from social or economic disadvantage on the basis of poverty, source of income, occupation, housing status, level of education, or any other similar circumstance.”
In December 2019, Pivot posted a backgrounder on social condition, explaining what it is and how it can be used to protect people living in poverty from discrimination and criminalization. Advocacy for enshrining basic human rights protections in (colonial) legislation for people living in poverty, both in BC and across the country, isn’t new. For several decades, anti-poverty advocates have been actively campaigning to have ‘social condition’ added into the Canadian Human Rights Act and the BC Human Rights Code (‘the Code’) as a protected characteristic against discrimination, the same way that a person’s age and ethnic background are currently protected.
People sheltering in public space along Hastings, facing eviction to nowhere, are being discriminated against based on their social condition.
In May 2020, the BC Office of the Human Rights Commissioner also took a stance on poverty discrimination and released their own backgrounder on adding social condition as a protected ground to BC’s Human Rights Code.
Over the last month, the City of Vancouver, Province of BC, Vancouver Fire Rescue Services, and Vancouver Police Department have all failed to employ a rights-based approach to a situation which has itself been created by the state.
Human Rights Code protections override all other laws in BC, including municipal by-laws, so the protection of social condition under a provincial Code would impact by-laws and orders that contribute to the cyclical displacement of people living in poverty and relying on public space. Public spaces (for example, sidewalks and parks) are arguably covered by BC’s Human Rights Code as a service or facility customarily available to the public.
The current conversations about street sweeps, and the unhoused and precariously housed residents sheltering in Hastings tent city, lay bare the importance of including social condition in the BC Human Rights Code.
Unlivable Conditions and Hostile Institutions
Tent cities and encampments are the result of decades of government policies which collectively supported the privatization of the housing market paired with an erosion of the social safety net, including income assistance rates that are inadequate to cover the high costs of rental housing in Vancouver. There has also been a seismic loss of affordable housing, and existing options, such as SROs, are in such states of decay that they are virtually unlivable. These circumstances push people into living on the streets, at which point they are subject to by-laws that prohibit them from creating structures to keep themselves sheltered and safe when they have nowhere else to go.
Once people are subject to bylaw violations they are also subject to police interference, often resulting in people becoming trapped in cycles of criminalization and further impoverishment.
On August 22nd, two devastating tragedies occurred at around the same time in the Downtown Eastside, discriminately impacting people who live with a certain social condition: poverty.
First, a fire has left two SRO buildings near the intersection of Princess Avenue and Powell Street uninhabitable. This fire has displaced almost 70 people, changing their lives forever and marginalizing them further as they lost all of their possessions and housing security. The social condition of residents of SROs makes them more vulnerable to displacement and housing insecurity due to the abnormally high level of fires in the low-income housing stock and the utter lack of affordable housing.
Second, later that morning, there was another public execution by the police. This time, an Indigenous man in obvious distress was murdered by police. There have been 5 VPD killings this year alone. This was the second killing to take place in the DTES in 2022.
The social condition of people who rely on public space makes them vulnerable to police interference, criminalization, and police killings. Lives stolen from their families, displaced and discarded, are a result of stigma-driven legislation, by-laws, and attitudes towards people who live in poverty.
Stigma in Many Forms
Media reports emerging over the past few weeks have been focused on highlighting the desires of the tourism and business industries, effectively shifting the narrative away from the needs and human rights of marginalized people and onto the well-being of businesses and profit margins. People living on the street are being dehumanized through the media, labeled as ‘zombies’ and framed as dispensable. This further fuels the violent rhetoric against people living in poverty and sheltering in public space by members of the general public who feel emboldened to target the most marginalized members of our society with acts of violence. Most recently, there were the tragic, fatal shootings of several unhoused people in so-called Langley, and, last week, a flyer being distributed on the E. Hastings strip warning residents that someone will be setting fire to people’s tents next week if they do not leave the area. Vancouver Fire Rescue Services has not issued any response to this fire threat in the neighbourhood.
While the Vancouver Fire Rescue Services handed out their decampment order in late July with the support of the City of Vancouver, B.C. Housing had informed the City that there would not be sufficient housing to accommodate all of the residents who would be further displaced by the decampment effort, violating an MOU that the City signed last year agreeing not to decamp people when they do not have an accessible alternative to housing.
BC Housing itself has provided contracts to housing providers who operated SROs which have fires in their buildings regularly, with the most recent report this month from the Autonomous Research Collective showing that 67 out of 166 SROs, or 40%, of all SRO buildings in Vancouver have current, unresolved fire bylaw violations. Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services also reported responding to 312 fires at SRO buildings in 2021. During this time, inspection reports for 34 SROs show dozens of issues with disconnected fire alarms in rooms, missing door closers, sprinkler lines, and other fire safety issues. These buildings are often in very poor condition and not maintained to the same standards of cleanliness of other residential buildings under the Residential Tenancy Act. SROs are often operated in ways contrary to the RTA, though technically residents have the same rights and protections in their housing as any other tenant.
People are being told to clear the streets for the sake of fire safety, but when they are being offered housing, which most of them are not, that housing is frequently incredibly unsafe. Narratives which frame those living on Hastings Street as refusing help offered to them are based in stigma because they presume that people with low incomes should take whatever they are offered, even if it makes them less safe and would not be an acceptable standard of housing for people who do not live in poverty.
After several weeks of human rights code violations by the City, VFRS and VPD, namely discrimination based on social condition, Indigenous identity, and physical and mental disability, as well as the blatant disregard for the national protection of housing as a human right in Canada, we are left asking ourselves what it will take to convince individuals with decision making power that the time is now to take meaningful action to solve housing insecurity and poverty in Vancouver.
We are calling on the Premier of BC, the acting Attorney General and Minister responsible for Housing, the Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, the Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, and the MLA for Mount Pleasant to answer our calls for stronger human rights protections.
Alternatives to criminalization and banishment must be informed by best practices that do not rely on coercive practices and power imbalances, and this is where legislation can help protect, instead of oppress, marginalized community members. The protection of a person’s social condition could have prevented this decampment altogether. In a society where all people are protected by human rights, no one should have to shelter in public space, let alone fight dehumanizing cycles of displacement like street sweeps. Leaders in the provincial government must immediately act to enshrine human rights protections in law, effectively acknowledging that living in poverty should never be a basis for discrimination, that poverty is not a choice, and that human rights are not extinguishable.
For solutions, we can look at the real-life ways that the addition of social condition to the B.C. Human Rights Code would lift people out of poverty and away from relying on public space to meet their needs for work and shelter:
- Create a means for legal recourse when people have experienced human rights violations by allowing them to file complaints with the Human Rights Tribunal.
- Prevent the creation of any new by-laws, orders or Acts that criminalize people for living in poverty in public space without safe housing options.
- Provide an avenue to challenge existing by-laws and legislation that violate the Code and discriminate against people based on protected human rights.
- Transform public opinion and attitudes to eliminate stigma towards marginalized communities who end up living in poverty.
- Require systemic changes within institutions, services, facilities, and accommodations in B.C. as they audit their policies and practices to match the updated provincial Human Rights Code protections.
Premier of British Columbia
Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction
Minister of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport and MLA for Mount Pleasant
Mayor of Vancouver
Province of British Columbia. A human rights commission for the 21st century: British Columbians talk about Human Rights: A report and recommendations to the Attorney General of British Columbia. Victoria, B.C.: 2017
Justice Canada, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada. Canadian Human Rights Act Review Panel chaired by Justice La Forest. Promoting Equality: A New Vision. Ottawa, Ontario: Justice Canada. 2000
 The Autonomous Research Collective. (August 2022). A Descriptive Review of Outstanding Fire Bylaw Infractions in SRA Bylaw Designated Properties in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Dataset and working paper. Manuscript in preparation.