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Call for Immediate Action to use Emergency Powers to House all Unhoused BC Residents

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BC Housing & the Vulnerable Populations Working Group

 

  Honourable Mike Farnworth
Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General
PO Box 9010 Stn Prov Gov
Victoria BC V8W9E2
c/o Honourable Shane Simpson
Minister of Social Development & Poverty Reduction
PO Box 9058 Stn Prov Govt
Victoria, BC V8W 9E2
  Dr. Bonnie Henry
Provincial Health Officer
PO Box 9648 Stn Prov Govt
Victoria BC V8W9P4
Honourable Selina Robinson
Minister of Municipal Affairs & Housing
PO Box 9056 Stn Prov Govt
Victoria, BC V8W 9E2
  City Manager Sadhu Johnston
Deputy City Manager Paul Mochrie,
Fire Chief Darrell Reid
City of Vancouver
3rd Floor, City Hall
453 West 12th Ave
Vancouver, BC V5Y 1V4
Honourable John Horgan
Premier of British Columbia
PO Box 9041 Stn Prov Govt
Victoria BC V8W9E1
All mayors and councilors in BC

RE: Emergency Housing for all unhoused and inadequately housed residents in British Columbia

We write to request immediate action to address the threat of COVID-19 for people who are unhoused and inadequately housed in British Columbia.[1] The important actions to date are simply not sufficient to protect the health and safety of people who are unable to engage in physical distancing or self-isolation for lack of self-contained housing.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing calls the refuge of a home the “front line defense” against COVID-19.[2] Public health directives across Canada are clear that “staying home” is the primary way to protect both personal and public health in this epidemic. As you are well-aware, for those who have been denied access to basic housing, income, and social supports—these directives are impossible to follow.

On March 31st, Farnworth extended the provincial state of emergency, saying “The next 14 days are critically important in our province’s unprecedented fight against COVID-19.”[3] Notwithstanding this, since the start of this emergency the Province has only acquired some 900 spaces for unhoused people to physical-distance, self-isolate and quarantine[4] – this when we know there is a bare minimum of 7,655 unhoused people in BC.[5] What’s more, the Provincial Government acknowledges “more rooms have been identified” but they will only use them “if a need is identified by health authorities.”[6] It is unconscionable that any emergency housing is being held in reserve during this critical moment.

We call on each of you to exercise your respective authorities in full, including pursuant to emergency legislation, to rapidly house every unsheltered and inadequately housed resident of British Columbia.

The Honourable Selina Robinson, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing; BC Housing and the provincial Vulnerable Populations Working Group

We call on you to take decisive action now to adequately house those existing in street homelessness, encampments, shelters, poorly maintained SRO’s and overcrowded reserve housing. Provinces and municipalities across the country have acquired empty hotel, motel and hostel assets to safely house those who remain outside and in dangerously crowded conditions without access to sanitation and protection. As is set out below, emergency powers have been enacted which would enable this process to be expedited.

Premier Horgan and all Mayors and Councilors in BC

When COVID-19 hits low-income and crowded neighbourhoods throughout the Province, such as Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, we know there is potential for mass harm. It is past time to light the fire under the task forces responsible for these measures. Those living in encampments, inadequate housing such as SRO’s, in shelters and on the streets in BC know they have been abandoned thus far. Fear, anger, panic and misinformation has set in. We ask that you take decisive action in BC and Vancouver by mustering all available resource to ensure the most vulnerable in our communities do not succumb to COVID-19. The time for uncompromising leadership on homelessness is critical now more than ever. Please ensure we do not fail unhoused residents of British Columbia.

Honourable Michael Farnworth; Dr. Bonnie Henry; and City of Vancouver Manager Sadhu Johnston, Deputy City Manager Paul Mochrie and Fire Chief Darrell Reid

Each of you is now empowered through emergency legislation to acquire and use public and/or private property as required to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Minister Farnworth has enacted emergency legislation which empowers him to “acquire or use any land or personal property considered necessary to prevent, respond to or alleviate the effects of an emergency or disaster.”[7] Minister Farnworth’s March 26, 2020 Order set aside all municipal declarations of emergency save for the City of Vancouver which declared as follows on March 19, 2020: “Council hereby authorizes City Manager Sadhu Johnston, Deputy City Manager Paul Mochrie and Fire Chief Darrell Reid to… acquire or use any land or personal property considered necessary to alleviate the effects of the emergency”.[8] Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry may “order a person to do anything” to prevent, stop or mitigate the harm of COVID-19, including designating specific facilities and places.[9]

Emergency powers have been invoked but they are not being utilized as they should be to permit unsheltered and under-housed people to properly physical-distance, self-isolate and quarantine at this time. It is time to take the decisive action emergency legislation allows and seize the housing assets we need immediately. Of course, these powers must be invoked with care, with the utmost regard for the rights of marginalized people, and the full consent of Indigenous communities – but we are missing a crucial window of opportunity to safeguard the lives of BC’s most vulnerable citizens and the greater public against COVID-19. We must act now.

Unhoused and inadequately housed people want to follow public health directives, want to protect themselves and their communities. The only adequate, human rights-based approach enables full access to the true physical distancing, self-isolating and access to sanitation our top health officials strongly urge for every citizen. Crowded SROs and ‘petri-dish’ shelters with shared bathrooms and showers do not provide access to adequate sanitation and leaves occupants and workers at great risk. Removing individuals from crowded shelter and housing stock after they develop symptoms is too little too late and undermines both individual and public rights and safety.

There are thousands of clean, safe empty rooms with running water and showers that sit ‘dark’ throughout BC right now while vulnerable residents are left outside and in crowded conditions. This leaves many individuals and the public at large facing great peril in the COVID-19 crisis. This is outrageous and unacceptable.

We call on all levels of government to act faster and more decisively to safeguard all British Columbians and to:

  • Provide self-contained hotel, motel or other rooms with toilets, showers, sinks and beds for every individual that wants to move from the streets, encampments, shelters and inadequate housing including SRO’s and crowded reserve housing, and begin long term housing planning for all those who are temporarily housed.
  • Ensure the number of units accounts for the overflow of women, trans and gender non-conforming people, and children escaping domestic violence during COVID-19; temporary foreign workers and others with precarious immigration status; those who may be released from overcrowded and dangerous detention centres during this time.
  • Delivery of three healthy meals daily to every room to allow people to physical distance and self-isolate as required.
  • Delivery of needed safe supply including alcohol to anyone who requires it daily.
  • Regular cleaning services and access to hygiene supplies as required.
  • Adequate PPE, training and safety measures for all hotel, social services and other support staff working to support community members housed in the hotel stock.
  • For those who are unable to move inside, whether because there is insufficient shelter, or available shelter is inaccessible to their needs, support people to “space out” through empty park and greenspace assets through-out the province without risk of removal or persecution.

Sincerely,

Leslie Varley, Executive Director
BC Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres

Viveca Ellis, Interim Community Organizer
BC Poverty Reduction Coalition

Fiona York, Coordinator
Carnegie Community Action Project

Anna Cooper, Staff Lawyer – Homelessness
Pivot Legal Society

[1] Canada has formally recognized the right to “adequate housing” as a set out in international law – National Housing Strategy Act (S.C. 2019, c. 29, s. 313) at s. 4.

[2] “Housing, the front-line defense against the COVID-19 outbreak,” says UN expert, online: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25727&LangID=E 

[3] “Province extends state of emergency to support COVID-19 response”, Office of the Premier (March 31,2020), online: https://news.gov.bc.ca/releases/2020PREM0018-000607

[4] “New spaces secured for vulnerable people to self-isolate”, Office of the Premier (April 7, 2020), online: https://news.gov.bc.ca/releases/2020MAH0019-000644

[5] 2018 Report on Homeless Counts in B.C, online: https://hsa-bc.ca/2018-homeless-count.html

[6] Supra footnote 3. Of note: Minister Farnworth has the power to request, and has apparently received, a list of all spaces available to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19, Ministerial Order 84, https://bc.ctvnews.ca/metro-vancouver-cities-identifying-facilities-for-makeshift-hospitals-and-covid-19-testing-sites-1.4870503?cache=zviomxnayn%3FclipId%3D104059

[7] Minister of Solicitor General and Public Safety (Emergency Program Act), Ministerial Order No. M073; Emergency Program Act, [RSBC1996] CHAPTER 111, s. 10(1)(d).

[8] By-Law No. 12661 a By-law to declare a State of Emergency in Vancouver, s. 3. a.

[9] Public Health Act, [SBC 2008] CHAPTER 28, ss. 30-31, 53-54, 58 and 67.