Over-policed and under-housed: DTES residents call for defunding police as community alternative to class war

Unceded territories, December 3, 2019 – Downtown Eastside residents and advocates will be rallying and speaking at City Hall today to demand a change in policing that targets poor people and overlooks systemic social injustice, and for the conscious redirection of VPD funds into essential community services and supports.

The Vancouver Police Budget has dramatically increased in recent years and is now planned to reach $340.4 million, more than one-fifth of the city’s entire 2020 operating budget and up from $317.2 million last year. In 2008 the police budget was almost half that, at $180 million per year.

The vast majority of funding goes into street cops and police salaries, with a constant increase in on-the-ground officers. It’s this change that is being most intensely felt by the community, because when dozens of extra police have more resources and more time on their hands, the inevitable result is an increase in profiling, street checks, and negative police interaction. 

Low-income and Indigenous people, drug users, women, two-spirit, queer, trans, and sex workers are the first affected by the trend toward over-policing and under-protection. 

“When do we ever see anything good come from them? Besides them wanting more. And they are always seem to want to pick on us when we are at our weak states, or if we’re alone, or if we’re not healthy,” said Anthony Bellegarde, a Downtown Eastside resident, at a recent town-hall meeting.

“The function of police is policing poor people and social control. But the overwhelming function, overwhelming amount of energy is controlling and harassing and being a constant presence in people’s lives. Millions and millions of dollars constantly harassing and surveilling instead of using that money to improve people’s lives in this city,”  says Aiyanas Ormond of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) 

Recent budget breakdowns have listed items such as monitoring street vending, visiting safe injection sites, supporting homeless people moving into social housing, providing assistance to vulnerable women, inspecting SROs, and supporting homeless people — all functions better left to community services that receive less than a quarter of the funding the VPD does.

Police officers are now increasingly being positioned as social workers and are a common feature of many mental health ACT teams. Valuable funding and resources are now being redirected to the police, such as the municipal fentanyl tax that was earmarked to help the community fight the overdose crisis but is being channelled to the VPD. Visits to safe injection sites in the DTES by the VPD have had a chilling effect in the community and in some cases have pushed drug users away from life-saving harm-reduction facilities.

Overall, as the police budget continues to expand, VPD officers in the DTES have more time and resources than ever, resulting in increased racial profiling, arbitrary police checks, property confiscations, and excessive bylaw ticketing. Only by highlighting these deep and systemic injustices can we begin to build a mass movement for change.

As activist Herb Varley pointed out at the town-hall, policing in Vancouver is not just about excessive budgets but is rooted in deeper structures of colonial dispossession and everyday governance of the land. The policing of low-income and Indigenous areas of the city is today a historic extension of the original mounted police and other militias who paved the way for white settlement.

“If you look at the way the Downtown Eastside is characterized, the same language that is used for colonization is used for gentrification. The Downtown Eastside is often characterized as lawless. And that is the same language as was used regarding Indian territory, prior to westward expansion. And if you take a look at language, they also say that the land is under-developed. It’s the same thing.”

Activists will speak today about the police budget and call for reduced street harassment and redirecting funds to community responses and housing. A 2012 report indicated that institutionalized responses to to homelessness were three times as high per person as the cost of housing and community supports. 

“So for obvious reasons… we gotta do the work and we gotta be courageous. Let’s do this, it’s about time.” — Elli Taylor , Carnegie Community Action Project. 

For more information:

Flora Munroe
Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users

Elli Taylor 

About Our Homes Can’t Wait Coalition

The OHCW coalition recognizes that our work takes place on the stolen territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. Our Homes Can’t Wait is a coalition of groups that want more social housing in the Downtown Eastside. The Our Homes Can’t Wait community vision for 58 W Hastings has so far been endorsed by Carnegie Community Action Project, Carnegie Community Centre Association, Gallery Gachet, Alliance Against Displacement, Carnegie African Descent Group, Vancouver IWW, COSCO Council of Senior Citizens’ Organizations of B.C., Union Gospel Mission, Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, WAHRS – Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society, First United – Vancouver Downtown Eastside, Pivot Legal Society, Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House, Chinatown Concern Group 唐人街關注組, Chinatown Action Group 華埠行動小組, Aboriginal Front Door, and Downtown Eastside SRO Collaborative