Being beaten, stabbed, sexually assaulted, shot with arrows, shot by police, lit on fire, and hunted through the streets like animals–these are recent examples of the intense violence inflicted on the homeless population of British Columbia, one of the richest provinces in one of the richest countries in the world.
This isn’t a particularly new development, but the massive spike in homelessness caused by COVID has put more people on the streets and in harm’s way. Homeless men, who are overrepresented in the homeless population, are nine times more likely to be murdered than non-homeless men, while 75 per cent of women in need of housing experience violence. Simply not having a home subjects people to extreme violence, whether at the hands of the police, sadistic thugs looking to hurt the vulnerable, or other distraught and ill people suffering beside them.
Violence against the homeless population occurs daily. However, the recent case of a man driving through the city of Langley, B.C. to shoot homeless people in cold blood in the street on the morning of July 25 made international headlines. Now, the homeless population of the lower mainland is living in heightened fear. Recently, posters were distributed in Vancouver’s poverty stricken Downtown East Side (DTES) threatening homeless people and their belongings, and a supervised injection site they said would be set on fire within the week. This is after a woman and a man were deliberately set on fire in the DTES a day prior.
What has the city of Vancouver and the Province of B.C. done in light of all this?
On Aug. 10, after an order from the Vancouver Fire Rescue Chief, tents set up in the DTES were dismantled by city crews, firefighters, and police. The clearings led to violence when residents who rightfully detest the police fought back. These clearings were done despite there not being anywhere for many of the evicted to go. The province’s own housing agency, B.C. Housing, said they “have been clear with the City of Vancouver and Vancouver Fire Rescue Services that, on short notice, we do not have access to large numbers of new spaces in Vancouver to accommodate the timing of the emergency order.”
Instead of action to end homelessness, those suffering are forcefully pushed out of encampments without having anywhere else to go. A total of about 23,000 people experienced homelessness for some period in 2019, with 9,300 unique people experiencing homelessness each month. The homeless population has continued to grow every year since the NDP has been in power, despite their slogan of “making your life more affordable.”
Who is to blame?
Despite all the challenges the homeless population faces, the stigma that “it’s their fault that they are homeless” remains. The logical conclusion of this is that the hardships and violence they face is unavoidable at best and justified at worst. None of this could be further from the truth.
The homeless population are ex-soldiers with trauma, construction workers with chronic pain who needed relief, First Nations people who can’t find housing on reserves, and university students who can’t afford campus housing. One of the most common causes of homelessness is women with children fleeing domestic violence. They leave one violent situation only to enter another. These are all real human beings, who for one reason or another fell on hard times. In March 2010, Thomas Sayer, a man known as “Flower Man” for the bouquets of flowers he’d sell or give out on the streets, was found dead from blunt force trauma. His death is still unsolved, and he’d spent his last few months with the help of his family trying to get housing. The stigmas and hatred perpetuated by the right-wing media attempt to place blame for the systemic problem of homelessness on individuals. Considering half of Canadians are $200 away from insolvency, this is a fate which many Canadian workers are one missed paycheque away from experiencing.
Homelessness in B.C. has long roots going back decades. The province has been a pole of attraction for the homeless for years, in part due to the relatively mild weather. The policies of the pro-business, anti-worker Liberal Party—in power from 2001 to 2017—helped create the conditions for speculation and money laundering in real estate which made B.C. one of the most unaffordable places to live in North America, pushing those who couldn’t afford higher rents onto the streets. Even the opioid crisis is the creation of pharmaceutical companies seeking profits by overprescribing opioids and falsifying decades of research. Since addiction is the most common reason for losing housing in B.C., and since substance use increases with homelessness, a vicious cycle of addiction and homelessness is created. Homelessness, and the violence stemming from it, is therefore a direct result of the everyday viciousness of the capitalist system. The hundreds of thousands of homeless people on the streets of Canada are a feature of this system and not a bug, and we cannot speak of ending homelessness for good as long as the root cause remains.
The reason the capitalists won’t and have never solved homelessness, or cared about those it destroys, is because it isn’t in the interests of their bottom line. Never mind that housing the homeless is cheaper and more effective than leaving them on the street, homelessness plays a key role in the capitalist system. An estimated 23 per cent of the homeless in Vancouver work either full or part time. If you are homeless, and already at the edge of destitution, you will take lower pay, complain less, and be more subservient to your boss. An army of unemployed and poor willing to take poor pay for bad working conditions places a downward pressure on wages for every working person.
The problem of homelessness isn’t even a problem of scarcity. There are more than enough empty homes to house the homeless population many times over. This doesn’t mean that putting homeless people in empty homes will magically solve all of their problems, but who could deny a safe place to stay to a single mother with children, running away from an abusive partner? Or to a struggling war veteran? Or even to a student who can’t afford housing? The simple solution is to put them in a home. At the same time that the average two-bedroom suite in Vancouver is $3,140 per month, it is a crime that homes sit empty for the benefit of the investments of the rich. For those who suffer debilitating addiction or mental illness, their needs can only be addressed with proper healthcare and medical attention, but if someone is to successfully receive treatment, having a roof over their head beforehand greatly increases their chances of getting well, as has been demonstrated in countries like Finland where housing is the starting point to treatment.
Even if all homeless people are housed, the underlying causes of homelessness still need to be solved. Public housing, adequate healthcare, eviction protections, and wages good enough to live a good life are all at odds with the capitalists’ drive for profits, but they are all goals the labour movement can struggle for and win. Labour can be at the forefront to expropriate the unused housing of the billionaires and turn it into socialized housing, it can fight for adequate addiction services and emergency healthcare, and it can fight for high wages.
The homelessness crisis has only gotten worse under the NDP for the simple reason that they have completely accepted the capitalist system and all its contradictions. Social programs therefore fall at the expense of corporate subsidies and tax breaks. Of the 114,000 affordable homes the NDP promised to build in 2017, only around 11,000 have been completed.
Homelessness will continue to spiral out of control and our most vulnerable will continue to die in the streets without militant intervention by the workers’ movement. The thousands who have so far died are our dead. No one should experience violence on the streets or die in a cold back alley. Only class struggle can prevent this fate from claiming any more victims.