August 27, 2019
The Honourable Jean-Yves Duclos
Minister of Families, Children and Social Development
House of Commons
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0A6
Open Letter: An Urgent Response to Housing and Homelessness Crisis and Overdose Crisis Is Needed
The situation for the over 2200 people who do not have a home in Vancouver is severe. Many people
have no access to daytime shelter, and hundreds of people have no overnight shelter option and are
forced to sleep on the street. The situation becomes even more alarming when you consider that many
of these individuals face serious health conditions, a mental illness or must manage a chronic disease;
and are trying to survive with no income, or on a fixed income that does not meet basic daily needs like
food and medicine. Some people who are trying to maintain family unity find that as a couple it can be
even more difficult to access shelter that does not force them to separate. Those with children are not
exempted from the impact of homelessness. I have met with people whose children are in the care
because they are cannot secure safe, secure affordable housing. Even seniors can find themselves
without a home. This is the kind of reality that hundreds of people in Vancouver East face every single
For some of the people, the dire situations of homelessness and insecure housing have led them to seek
relative safety by residing in an encampment in Oppenheimer Park. For months, community members
and volunteers have worked hard to provide some level of support to those at the encampment. With
their best effort, people residing in the Park can access basic sanitation services, some food security,
peer support, and a VCH-sanctioned, peer-run Overdose Prevention Site.
The people at the encampment now face an order of eviction from Oppenheimer Park. At the time of
the Order, encampment residents and spokespeople estimated that there were approximately 300
people residing in the encampment.
With respect to the situation in Oppenheimer Park, it is so severe that the United Nations Special
Rapporteur on the Right to Housing, Leilani Farha, has taken notice, and is concerned that governments
are not meeting their obligations under international human rights law in violating the right to housing.
While BC Housing has attempted to set aside units through a “unit freeze” on other buildings in order to
house the people at Oppenheimer Park, what that means is that other people who are homeless and in
need of housing are displaced. The community feels very strongly that making people in dire need feel
that they are being pitted against each other is no solution.
There is an urgent, urgent need for additional affordable housing units. In 1993, the federal
government’s cancellation of the National Affordable Housing Program resulted in the loss of more than
500,000 units of affordable housing that would have otherwise been built by the non-profit and cooperative sectors. Having those units at that time, and building from that point moving forward would
have put Canada in a dramatically different position today than we currently are. Equally important is
the fact that there is a desperate need for government subsidies to ensure individuals and families are
not paying over 30% of their total income for rent. In order to ensure that people are successful in their
housing, support also needs to be made available to those individuals. Until all these are in place,
further displacing people living on the streets from where they have found relative safety and support
only increases their vulnerability and does nothing to address the homelessness problem in Vancouver.
Minister, I hope you will agree that each and every one of these individuals requires a safe place to call
home. Yet, as I have raised with you and with those in your Cabinet, time and time again, much of the
monies that are supposed to aid those without a home will not flow immediately. In fact, over 90% of
the money first promised in 2017 for housing will not begin to flow until after this next federal election,
and much of that not until after 2024. That is too long to wait. And worse, as noted by the Parliamentary
Budget Officer, targeted assistance for those in the deep core of need and spending on Indigenous
housing is actually reduced from that of the Harper Conservative years. I find this incredible and
incompatible with the evidence of clear need in communities across the country, and mostly certainly in
I further add that there is another serious crisis at hand which compounds the dire impact of lack of
housing, and adds additional pressures in Vancouver East: the crisis of opioid overdose deaths and the
scourge of fentanyl poisoning.
With regard to halting the opioid overdose crisis, I have called on the government to declare a National
Health emergency ever since I have been elected as a Member of Parliament. As well, it is long past
time to take on “Big Pharma” because the opioid overdose crisis is not limited to the DTES – as you
know, it is affecting communities big and small all across the country. I believe that my constituents, and
indeed all Canadians, deserve answers and accountability. Too many people have lost their lives. In the
U.S., federal authorities have already secured criminal pleas and over $600 million in fines, damages,
and other costs from Purdue Pharma for misbranding OxyContin with the intent to defraud and mislead;
and, just yesterday, an Oklahoma judge ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $572 million for its role in
that state’s opioid crisis. That is why I stood in the House on November 29, 2018, to call on your
government to launch an investigation into the role drug companies may have played in fuelling the
opioid crisis and seek meaningful compensation for the costs of addiction. This would be an important
step to pressure the manufacturers to take responsibility for the lives that they have damaged.
During my time as MLA for Vancouver – Mount Pleasant in the late 1990s, the three levels of
government came together to address the challenges faced by the people in the Downtown Eastside
community. With each level of government in agreement to do what they could within their
jurisdiction, the Vancouver Agreement was negotiated, which resulted in a number of then ground
breaking measures, most notably the adoption of the “Four Pillars” approach which led to the
development of the first supervised injection facility in North America.
We thought that things were bad then but today, we are in a situation that is even worse with illicit
fentanyl causing at least four overdose deaths a day in British Columbia. As early as April 2016, the BC
Public Health Officer declared a public health emergency due to the climbing number of overdose
deaths. In comparison, in 2009, 428 people died of the H1N1 virus, and the government of the day
declared a national health emergency. Today, with the opioid crisis, over 1,400 people are dying a year
in this country, yet your government has not declared it a national health emergency.
We also still have an influx of deadly poisons being sold on the streets. People in my community are
asking, when will the government respond to the call to prevent illicit, internationally traded deadly
drugs from invading our communities in the most deadly way?
I am also mindful that the people who have borne the heaviest toll of all in this are Indigenous people.
As Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, has pointed out, “a
disproportionately high number of the vulnerable [Oppenheimer] Park residents facing the loss of a safe
and stable living situation are Indigenous. Any move to forcefully evict them is callous and insensitive to
the mental health, addictions, and poverty that they are battling as a result of an ongoing colonial legacy
of systemic discrimination and oppression.” I share his concern, and the concern that continued
inaction on the part of the federal government to act swiftly in accordance with the urgency of the need
for housing violates “the basic rights of Indigenous peoples articulated in the United Nations Declaration
on the Rights of Indigenous People, as well as blatantly ignore[s] the call for safe housing that is
appropriate to the cultural and economic needs of Indigenous peoples set out in the National Inquiry’s
Calls for Justice.”
Not only this, but Indigenous people have been grossly over-represented in overdose events and deaths;
according to the BC First Nations Health Authority, First Nations people are 5X more likely than non-First
Nations to experience an overdose event, and 10% of all overdose deaths in BC involved First Nations
With these dire and life-threatening emergencies at hand, I believe that it’s time to bring all three levels
of government together for a renewed Vancouver Agreement. A comprehensive and coordinated
strategy between all levels of government is needed more than ever. Just as we did then by
incorporating leading initiatives from other jurisdictions, we need now to learn from the successes of
the Portuguese model. The strategy must also recognize the need to address the issue of poverty and
the social determinants of health.
As evidenced by the experiences of people at the encampment, there is a great need for low-barrier
temporary shelter space; on-demand detox/treatment facilities, and access to other health and support
services; second-stage and transition housing, and accessible permanent housing.
In the interim, our community urgently requires the federal government’s support to secure housing
now for those in need, while more permanent units are under construction.
I am calling on the Federal government to provide emergency funding to Vancouver so that additional
modular housing units could be built to house those currently living in the encampment.
Canada must also ensure that all of these actions align with the rights outlined in the UN Declaration on
the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and it is absolutely crucial that government act decisively on all
recommendations of the National Inquiry’s Calls To Justice to ensure a supported and just future for
Indigenous women and girls, and indeed for all Indigenous people.
If our community and indeed our society are not to fall ever further behind, then the urgent housing
resources would arrive today.
The tools to act are in your hands.
I would close in saying that, in speaking with those who have sought shelter together in the
encampment at Oppenheimer Park, many face multiple challenges. These challenges include securing
adequate income, appropriate health care, adequate nutritious food, culturally appropriate support and
services, and family reunification. Without a safe, secure, affordable and stable home, the hope of ever
meeting these challenges can seem distant indeed. With a place to call home, the journey of healing can
begin, for individuals and for the community as a whole. Let us begin today and with the very basics: a
home for every one.
MP for Vancouver East
NDP Critic for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship
NDP Critic for Multiculturalism
CC: Honourable François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Infrastructure and Communities
MP Adam Vaughan, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development
Honourable Selina Robinson, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing
Hon. Melanie Mark, MLA, Vancouver-Mount Pleasant
Hon. Shane Simpson, MLA, Vancouver-Hastings
Mayor Kennedy Stewart
The Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) is a project of the board of the Carnegie Community Centre Association. CCAP works mostly on housing, income, and land use issues in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) of Vancouver so that the area can remain a low income friendly community.
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