Displacing the unhoused population dehumanizes an entire community

Why leading with empathy creates solutions that endure

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Photo of Oppenheimer Park
PHOTO: Amirul Anirban / The Peak

By: Emma Cosman, SFU Student

As temperatures in the greater Vancouver area drop to unprecedentedly low levels, the cold winter days become difficult to bear for even the most seasoned Canadians. Yet, an accessible shelter is a comfort that not all BC residents can rely on during these winter days. An escalated movement has been underway to remove the unhoused populations of the greater Vancouver area from supposed community spaces, highlighted most recently by the eviction of the tent-dwelling community that resides in Oppenheimer Park. This increased enforcement is putting the unhoused population of Oppenheimer Park at risk and dehumanizing an entire community. 

The solutions and resources that currently exist for the unhoused population — such as shelters — are a temporary fix to the housing crisis, which has become a permanent challenge for a growing number of people in Vancouver. The narrative of the unhoused population by city officials, mixed with a continuous lack of effort to implement long-term solutions, shows they are neglected members of our community. 

The unhoused population of Vancouver is among the most vulnerable members of the city during these months of remarkably low temperatures. The city’s inaction to implement accessible resources for unhoused communities is contrasted by the quick enforcement of city bylaws, which “allows people to shelter in parks overnight but requires them to pack up and leave during the day.” Despite not being categorized by the city as a decampment — the active removal of unhoused people from community spaces feels too close to the definition of a decampment to not call it as such. 

Even when residents of the park are dutifully complying with the bylaws, the response to their compliance is a complete disregard for the dignity and livelihood of the unhoused. Officers have been forcefully taking possessions from unhoused people who then struggle to get back what belongs to them. This immoral and biased enforcement of the bylaws completely ignores how forceful removals impact the unhoused population during a time filled with frigid uncertainty. 

Advocates for the unhoused population are calling on the city to implement a temporary moratorium, which would freeze the implementation of the bylaws that force residents to move their belongings daily. For the unhoused population, this daily movement can have tremendous impacts on their health, as the cold weather brings an increased risk of hypothermia and frostbite. These bylaws don’t consider the labour required to pack up on a daily basis. The city has opted to forgo the suggested pause in decampment and promised an increase in shelter spaces.

However, spaces in available shelters are limited despite an increased need for warm and safe shelter. The alternative shelters proposed by city officials are often either at capacity or unsafe due to hygiene or security concerns. Even when available, they rarely provide access to basic living needs for the unhoused community, such as washrooms and a secure place to keep their belongings. These unreliable housing resources coupled with the severe lack of compassionate action from city officials makes one thing clear — something needs to change. 

To create lasting solutions, we need to lead with compassion and care. What needs to be prioritized is creating actual support systems for unhoused communities, such as more availability in safe shelters, rehabilitation programs, mental health resources, and initiatives to implement more permanent accessible housing.

Enforcing bylaws with the justification of making community spaces accessible, while not providing safe resources for unhoused people, further isolates an already stigmatized community.

The current approach taken by the city to solve the houselessness crisis, an issue rapidly growing in severity, is marked by a severe lack of empathy. By treating unhoused people as an infringement on the perceived prosperity of an existing community, the city tells the public people without housing aren’t people at all. 

Leading with empathy is the first step in creating long-term solutions for the unhoused, built on respect for them as actual people, not as hindrances to a city’s reputation. Rather than treating unhoused people as a violation of city bylaws, we need to begin recognizing them as members of our communities. 

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