Policing the Crisis in Vancouver | PART I: The Portland Model

During the 2008 elections in Vancouver, Portland was upheld as a model for Vancouver. Photo: tekniklr

EDITORIAL INTRODUCTION | It’s been five years since Mayor Gregor Robertson and Vision Vancouver were elected on a platform to end homelessness. Since then homelessness has increased, rents have climbed, and Vancouver has witnessed a continued loss of low-income and affordable housing. The title of this three-part series is “Policing the Crisis,” the name of a landmark book on the policing of marginalized communities in 1970’s Britain by Stuart Hall et al. At the dawn of the neoliberal dismantling of the British welfare state, and in a context of entrenched urban inequality, Hall and his co-writers traced the emergence of police power as a tool in the state’s management of the disintegrating social order.

The present series jumps several decades forward, to a different continent, in order to investigate the effects of police-led government in the City of Vancouver. The sole municipal department to receive additional funding in the period 2008-2013 has been the Police, among core services. At a time when the housing crisis continues to deteriorate, the police response has continued to escalate despite the fact that the crime rate has significantly dropped. The purpose of this series is to analyze, contextualize and criticize the role of the police under neoliberal market deregulation, five years after the election of Vision Vancouver in 2008.

During the 2008 municipal election Gregor Robertson put the housing crisis at the center of his campaign, promising to address what he termed a homeless “state of emergency.” Robertson promoted the idea of a businesslike approach to the housing emergency, with clear goals and identifiable “metrics.” Voters were not given details, but the lack of information was presented as strength, signaling Robertson’s capacity for flexibility and creative solutions. When pressured to give more than vague assurances, Robertson pointed to an actual city as a living example of his future plan: Portland, Oregon. Rather than a lofty scheme pulled out of thin air, a letter written by Robertson in March of 2008 proposed the living example of Portland as Vancouver’s “roadmap for change.”[1] 

In a short amount of time the Portland Model became the blueprint for Vision’s future Vancouver. Portland was a natural example for a new middle-class party seeking to extend the benefits of Northwest creativity, green living and entrepreneurialism to Vancouver. It was also possible to think of Portland as Vancouver’s socio-economic laboratory, faced with similar challenges in a similar setting. Like Vancouver, Portland was suffering from the North America-wide housing crisis, steeped in increasing mortgage debt, climbing rents, flat wages and a growing homeless population. Unlike Vancouver, Portland had already begun taking concerted action in 2005, initiating a 10-year plan to eliminate homelessness.

Portland was a city armed with what Robertson called “an action plan to end homelessness, with timelines and commitments.” With the exception of a special report by PIVOT, which made brief reference to Portland’s “short-term abatement of homelessness,” there had been little public discussion of the Portland model. Most people in Vancouver were left to guess what it would mean for their city, although Vision’s progressive brand implied that the solution would mean housing for the homeless. For people living in Portland, however, there were fewer question marks. Three years of a well-announced plan to end homelessness left much to be desired.

In 2007 there were 1,438 unsheltered homeless people in Portland. The situation continued to worsen throughout 2008, with another 11% increase up to 1,596.[2] Yearly increases have continued to this day. In policy terms, little was done in 2005, 2008, or any other year to prevent the continued loss of affordable housing in downtown Portland. Throughout the period, unregulated gentrification and escalating rents continued to displace Portland’s working class and low-income residents.

The effects of the loss of affordable housing was most directly felt by Portland’s black community. Throughout 2008, policing and property gentrification together combined to displace thousands of people from the city, with Census reports showing an exodus of 10,000 people of color from the urban core between 2006 and 2010. The inherently racialized nature of gentrification was stark in central areas like the Boise district – the neighborhood surrounding gentrified Mississippi avenue. There the black population dropped from 70.2% in 1990 to 26.9% by 2010. In the same proportion, the percentage of white residents climbed from 23.3% to 59.7%. Today 30% of the homeless population and 20% of the jail population is black, despite black people only making up 5.4% of the total population in Portland.

On the housing front, it seemed that the Portland of 2008 could not have been deemed a model of success by any standard. At best, the north-west city seemed to mirror Vancouver’s own problems – a Canadian city, founded like Portland on colonialism and more than a century of white supremacy, whose racialized homeless population had grown at least 15% between 2005 and 2008.

 The Portland Model: “Ending lawlessness before homelessness”

If it didn’t bring a solution to the housing crisis, what exactly was unique about the Portland Model? What made Portland stand out, from the other side of the 49th parallel, in the run up to the 2008 elections? While both cities had experienced growing homelessness populations, and while both cities routinely imprisoned their homeless population, there was one measurable difference: Portland alone imprisoned more people than almost all of British Columbia. As argued by Clark Williams-Derry of the Sightline Institute, “Portland’s large and growing prison population puts the city’s “success” in homeless policy in a different light…As is completely typical in the United States, Portland locks a large portion of its homeless problem in jail.”

A week before Vancouver’s 2008 election, Gregor Robertson again wrote an article to the Vancouver Sun aligning his campaign with the “successful” example of Portland. Ominously, however, he used the same Sun column to attack his right-wing opponent for not cracking down hard enough on crime. The forewarning for Vancouver was soon written on the wall with events on the ground in Portland. While Gregor was praising Portland’s model, Portland’s police had just completed the most intense social cleansing measures in the city’s recent history. The measures included mass arrests, midnight raids on homeless camps, and the practice of “rousting” throughout the months of April and May, 2008 (rousting is defined as the practice of aggressively waking up and displacing homeless people, often with large groups of officers and police dogs).

Portland’s anti-camping ordinance made it illegal for people to sleep on public property, with punishment of a 30-day jail sentence. The ordinance was exacerbated by a “sit-lie” ordinance pushed through in 2007 that made it illegal to sit or lay on a public sidewalk between 7 am to 9 pm.[3] All of these practices create a nightmare environment for people living on the streets and in poverty. Today there is no sign that these policies will disappear any time soon. In the recent words of current mayor Charlie Hales: “We’re not going to wait until the homelessness problem is solved before we start dealing with the problem of lawlessness.”

In 2006, one year after the birth of the plan to “end” homelessness, mayor Tom Potter voted to renew the 1993 “drug-free and prostitution-free zones” (DFZ/PFZ) legislation in the rapidly gentrifying downtown core. The drug-free zone legislation not only made it illegal to possess drugs in the downtown core, including marijuana, but also enabled police officers to issue 90-day “notices of exclusion” to offenders. Failure to comply with a notice of exclusion could result in the arrest on the basis of criminal trespass. Between 2006-2007, the DFZ legislation led to 1,922 arrests.

The DFZ was enforced unevenly, reflecting a blatant racial bias among officers. 68% of exclusions were issued to black people. The finding of racial bias led to the end of the DFZ/PFZ zoning enforcement in 2007. However, the DFZ has reappeared in 2011 under the new name of “Drug Impact Area,” making the downtown core into an extended zone of exclusion for poor, homeless and racialized populations. With regard to sex work, Mayor Potter pledged to find more effective ways of putting sex workers in jail by “working toward a system where officers will have the ability to arrest prostitutes who enter an area, in violation of their probation and put them in jail.” At a press conference in 2008, Potter bragged that “during six anti-prostitution missions over 10 days, officers arrested 36 prostitutes.”

Portland’s regressive policing of the endemic housing crisis, however, has not gone unchallenged. A 2008 lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the anti-camping ordinance stated: “When Portland’s police and municipal court enforce these ordinances, they effectively drive homeless people out of town and prevent them from coming here.” Portland’s bid to “end homelessness” meant simply moving individual homeless people out of the city.

The effect of aggressive policing was to end homelessness in Portland for a large number of people, even if they continued to be homeless elsewhere. Ending homelessness in Portland therefore meant displacing the homeless from an increasingly white and fortified urban center re-designed for consumption, middle-class leisure and urban liberalism.

Vision Vancouver and Project Civil City

Throughout the 2008 Vancouver elections, Vision began running a series of negative campaign ads attacking the NPA for not hiring extra police officers and for being soft on crime. Even though Vancouver had experienced a 9% decrease in the crime rate from 2007 to 2008, Gregor portrayed “skyrocketing”[4] crime and smeared his opponents for not securing law and order. Peter Ladner and the NPA were promising to add an extra 100 officers to the police force, but for Roberston this was not enough. Instead, he confronted Ladner for having once voted against a Police Department budget-increase earmarked for additional officers under Vancouver’s Project Civil City.

Project Civil City emerged in 2006 out of Mayor Sam Sullivan’s reports to council on “public disorder,” followed by a unanimous vote of endorsement from the Police Board. The next two years would prove to be incomparably authoritarian. Under Civil City the police would come to adopt a “results-based” approach to enforcement. This meant, simply, the introduction of a system of unannounced quotas, and in the following year the City’s approval of additional money for Project Civil City included the funding of MTI (Municipal Ticket Information). MTI gave police the ability bypass court process in issuing tickets: spitting and defecating, $100; dog off leash or no dog license, $250; objectionable noise, $150; jaywalking, $100.

Gregor’s tacit support for the policing component of Project Civil City during the campaign was an indicator of what would come under the ‘Portland model.’ Project Civil City, Vancouver’s own social cleansing legislation passed by the NPA in the lead-up to the Olympic Games, had already been circulating people through the jails daily, with endless charges for petty offenses. Despite its reactionary law-and-order approach, however, Robertson and Vision criticized Project Civil City for reasons other than the insistent criminalization of poverty.

In particular, the Project had diverted funding to the Downtown Ambassadors. According to Gregor and Vision, the extra money should have been used for the VPD. The debate over Project Civil City was a debate over who could best police the housing crisis. Whereas Project Civil City commissioner Geoff Plant argued that poverty should be treated in the same way as “cancer,” Gregor argued that poverty was a “disease.”[5] According to Gregor, this disease could not be cured by the Ambassadors: “As public safety has eroded and more serious crime and homelessness has skyrocketed, the Ambassadors end up being a stop-gap solution.”[6] According to Gregor, only the police could attack the disease. Gregor and Vision therefore made a firm campaign promise to “redirect the program’s funds to the police.”

Instead of criticizing the Ambassadors for their discriminatory practices, the Ambassadors appeared unacceptable because they diverted money away from the VPD. And instead of questioning the practices of the police, including the ticketing blitz of 2008 targeted against the poor of Vancouver, Vision redoubled their commitment to the policing-first approach, re-establishing their support to “the VPD in their goal of making Vancouver the safest major city in North America.” Following this commitment Vision councillors supported hiring more police officers in 2008, which they did once elected.

By 2011, the City of Vancouver had the third highest police budget in Canada, despite being the 8th largest municipality in Canada. The police bill consumed 20% of Vancouver’s total budget, just behind Calgary. Most other major Canadian cities, such as Toronto, spend about 10% of their budgets on the Police. Once empowered with additional funding and support from City Hall, did Vision’s VPD follow the Portland Model post-2008? That is for Part II in this three-part series.


[1] Gregor Robertson, “Letter to the Editor: Gregor Robertson gives ‘homeless’ two cents,” Vancouver Courier, March 7, 2008

[2] Peter Korn, “Report: More homeless people on Portland’s streets,” The Portland Tribune, Apr 14, 2009

[3] “Eight years of sit-lie history,” Editorial, Street Roots, May 5, 2010

[4] Jackie Wong, “Expansion of Downtown Ambassadors program draws praise, criticism,” WEstender, July 17, 2008

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.