Voices against Displacement: Karen Ward’s speech to City Council

DTES Paint-in

Karen Ward
DTES Local Area Plan, Friday, March 14th

I have represented Gallery Gachet on the LAP Committee. We are an artist-run centre, specifically a centre for artists living with a mental illness. I live with a mental illness. I would not have been able to serve on the LAP as I have save for two things. First, I have stable housing and I no longer struggle to survive each day. I can see beyond my day’s needs. As a result, I’m able to participate in the life of my community as I do today and as I have these past years.

And despite the tremendous stigma that people with mental illness face in many parts of the city, here in the DTES I feel not only tolerated or accepted, but actually respected as a person. Secondly, it is the community itself that has lifted me up and given me the ability to work on the LAP as an artist, and do my other volunteer work in the community.

For the last 2 years the LAP committee has built a plan for the DTES that we have worked very hard on to address the prevailing conditions in the neighbourhood. Nowhere else could a committee working in collaboration with city staff go to extraordinary and thoughtful measures to ensure that no citizen is displaced from their homes, an outcome stated in the 2005 plan. Even as our property values rise exponentially – 303% as councillor Reimer noted earlier – and as development pressures turn our homes into what one realtor called this week “prime real estate”, what can be created through the provision of social housing is an opportunity for Canada’s most disenfranchised citizens to live a better life and on their own terms.

I urge you to look at the At home Chez Soi project. With secure housing, it is shown, people with severe addictions, mental illness and chronic homelessness can begin to take control of their lives once they’re given a home. This is the first principle:  Housing First. The fact that the human tragedy of homelessness has been normalized throughout our country and in Vancouver in particular, is an indictment of all of our values as Canadians. Property, and thus housing, is the most critical part of the DTES Local Area plan. Spending money to solve this crisis is the duty of all levels of government whether they say so or not. The housing crisis extends not only from homelessness but from people living in dangerous and inadequate SROs who spend more than half their incomes on their rent and on their housing.

Building and maintaining social housing at social assistance rates should justly be the overarching concern of the plan. Now it is true that the shelter rate is too low. The provincial government has not increased the rate since 2007. It obviously has not kept pace with the cost of living or the real price of decent housing. I remind Council and the gallery of the UBCM resolution U 55:  Whereas the amount of support given to individuals on disability welfare and Old Age Security is inadequate to support people’s basic human needs in terms of adequate shelter, clothing, food, and other basic necessities, based on today’s cost of living, therefore be it resolved that the UBCM request the provincial government to increase the basic support allowance given to these individuals to a level that reflects the true cost of living in our country.  And I would add, the basic dignity of all.

The LAP’s call for a 60/40 ratio of social housing to secured market rental in the Oppenheimer District has also been characterised as ghettoising. Some quick points on this. If low income people have indeed been concentrated in one area its because we have been effectively priced out of the rest of the city. Housing affordability has constantly been cited as the major challenge of Vancouver. And this plan represents the first actual attempt to deal with it.

Our values in the DTES are not mainstream and we’re proud of that. We don’t read a person’s value by their bank account or their job. We understand that if someone lives with a mental illness or addiction, that person deserves  respect. Sadly these are not, as I noted, mainstream. We are also aware that as we work and play and live in the DTES, we are on unceded Coast Salish territory. Nor, sadly, is that awareness mainstream.

If Vancouver is to maintain itself as a diverse city, people with low incomes must be able to live here too. Meaningful diversity of all kinds is proper to a healthy city and a healthy city strategy. The LAP can, if implemented carefully, keep land values low in the Oppenheimer district using the 60/40 formula. The success or failure of the rest of the 30-year plan depends entirely upon it. As a plan, it bucks the trend of letting the market determine our homes and our future. I support that. This is a rare opportunity for Vancouver to embrace a philosophy of planning that is inclusive of its citizenry and an attempt to improve the quality of life for Canada’s most marginalized citizens. And it can be done.

Following the speech, Karen Ward responded to questions from City Councillor Andrea Reimer

Reimer: I have a few questions for you. You were talking about how you feel safe in the DTES and there’s personal reasons for that. At the same time you and I both know that there’s lots of people who claim to feel unsafe, not necessarily residents but people who are in the area. Can you please talk about what that discussion was like at the LAP? I know you were, I mean everybody was heavily engaged. You were heavily engaged in terms of the number of hours put in. The open drug market isn’t fully referenced in the document. Could you talk about what would address that in the plan, if anything?

Karen: I think there are several points. The first one I would put to Council is that the drug market profoundly affects all of Vancouver. There are geographical reasons for that which I think which are obvious. And I would add that, as I see it, the war on drugs has failed. And drug use prevails across the city. The so-called street disorder that is evident in the DTES brings to mind the scene on Granville St. actually on Friday and Saturday night, which I find much more unsafe and a typically different class of people enacting their lives in a different way with licit drugs.

I would add that no one as a very young person says “I hope that I grow up to be a hard core drug user in the DTES of Vancouver.”  Every one of us is somebody’s baby and terrible things have happened – trauma and pain and tragedy unimaginable.  From a medical context it’s called self-medication. The open drug market is something that’s less open in other parts of the city. And when people live in infested 10 by 10 rooms, as my colleague Herb Varley noted, your life becomes so much less private.  Everything you do is on the street. Everything you don’t do is on the street. Everyone you associate with – your friends and your neighbours – you can’t meet them inside anywhere, you meet them outside.

I would put to you that the perceived safety as a result of the general disorder of the DTES is something that is a result, primarily, of poverty and oppression, and when I take a step back I recall how Vancouver is the terminal city. And I think a little bit about my own past and how I wound up here. And the stories I’ve shared and how a lot of us are running away. We’ve run away as far as we can and now we’re here. We’ve been displaced from everywhere else. We’ve been excluded from everywhere else. And this is the first and last place we can find home.  And some of us emerge within this space and some of us take longer. It’s true, there’s ongoing public pain. And if people find that hard to bear, they should.

Reimer: This question is around the SRO task force – the city’s recommendations.  They are within the city’s jurisdiction to try to deal with the issue of poor maintenance – the landlord situation. How would that relate to people in social and supportive housing?

Karen:  I think that’s an excellent question. Thank you for that.

I would draw council’s attention to point H in your policy report, subsections 2 and 3, to direct staff to implement an information campaign to educate tenants and landlords on their rights and responsibilities in relation to City Bylaws and the RTA.  The problem I see here is that the housing that’s being built right now is supportive housing and that’s not covered by the RTA. I live in supportive housing and there are a lot of disputes. There are concerns around privacy, coercion, problems between tenants who are patients and clients and have no recourse to deal with those complaints. They’re dealing with building management and building staff. And indeed intra-tenant disputes. This subsection seems to me to be a little dangerous because there does need to be some sort of ombuds procedure for people in supportive housing because they’re very vulnerable and their rights are constantly abrogated. So I would very much urge council to amend that section. I would also exercise great caution in the choice of non-profit society or perhaps another structure that could be come up with.That subsection does concern me.