Researchers, academics speak out against encampment evictions in Vancouver’s DTES

Following the city of Vancouver’s evictions of homeless encampments in the Downtown Eastside, several UBC and non-UBC academics signed onto an open letter calling on the City of Vancouver to stop the evictions.

Starting in April 2023, police and city staff forcibly removed tents and other makeshift housing encampments from the Downtown Eastside, in the name of public safety. These actions are the result of many months of discussion, including an order from the Vancouver Fire Chief last July to remove structures due to “extreme fire risk.”

The open letter, published in the Mainlander by the Right to Remain research collective, discusses the systemic failures leading to Vancouver’s growing homelessness crisis and argues that decampments do not improve public safety, especially with a lack of viable housing alternatives.

Citing research from across Canada and the United States, the letter states that these actions only increase the risk of harm for unhoused populations. It asks the city to stop the decampments and redirect resources to more permanent solutions.

Initially drafted by organizers from the University of Victoria, the letter now has over a thousand signatures from 58 universities, including several hundred professors, faculty, and students from UBC.

Dr. Penelope Gurstein, professor emeritus at the School of Community and Regional Planning (SCARP) and director of the Housing Research Collaborative at UBC, was one of the many to sign the letter.

Gurstein said that she was “horrified” by the evictions, especially with the current lack of shelter space and affordable permanent accommodation.

“All of our research is pointing to the fact that there’s a lack of the right supply of housing to meet people's needs,” she said. "You cannot break up encampments until you find shelter for and if there's no shelter. What are you supposed to do?”

Dr. Thomas Kerr, head of the division of social medicine at UBC, as well as director of research with the BC Centre of Substance Use (BCCSU), was equally frustrated at the situation.

Kerr echoed advocates who say decampments and shelters are not necessarily safer, particularly for women and gender-diverse people due to gender-based and sexual violence found in these environments.

Kerr emphasized how disruptions in housing increase the risk for multiple adverse health outcomes, including fatal overdoses.

In a written statement shared with The Ubyssey, the City of Vancouver said the encampments had to be closed due to increasing public safety concerns.

According to the statement, the VPD has expressed concern about “escalating incidents and threats of violence,” “a marked increase in violent offences in the encampment zone” and “an increase in weapons in the zone being used in the commission of crimes”.

The statement said the city has a 600 million dollar budget to create and preserve affordable housing over the next four years, as well as an eight million dollar allocation to VCH to enhance and create new mental health services. However, it did not address the increase in homelessness in the region.

“Ten [decampments] in ten years. When are people going to realize this is not the solution?” said Kerr.