Governing the dangerous poor: Vancouver City Council uses the displacement of Oppenheimer Park tent city to launch more and “better” policing throughout the Downtown Eastside

According to part-time camp resident and public advocate Chrissy Brett, there are 115 tents and around 200 people living Oppenheimer tent city. “The winter is now here,” she explained as she protested a displacement motion at Vancouver City Hall on October 23rd, “and people are wet and cold.” But the solution, she said, is to house homeless people, not to forcibly displace them from the camp.

A joint motion to “decamp” Oppenheimer Park tent city was proposed to Vancouver City Council in September by Michael Weibe, a Green Party Councillor, and Lisa Dominato, a Councillor with the Non-Partisan Association (NPA), Vancouver’s right wing civic party. The motion finally passed, in a slightly amended form, late in the evening on Wednesday October 23rd. If followed, it will lead to the eventual displacement of the tent city by bilateral direction from Vancouver city staff and the Parks Board, without the involvement of affected people in living in the park. 

More than a motion about decamping Oppenheimer Park tent city, this nearly omnibus motion takes on the city’s problems of neutralizing and containing not only the threat of the dangerous poor camped in Oppenheimer Park, but of low-income people throughout the streets and buildings of the Downtown Eastside (DTES). Media discussion has focused on “decampment,” but other clauses in the motion will kickstart a full review of the funding and delivery of services to low-income people in the DTES and spark a new homeless outreach team, which dovetails with a revitalized psychiatric policing strategy that Green Councillor Michael Weibe, an author of the motion, calls a “unique” policing strategy built to take on the dangerous poor; communities that he says are “resistant” to police. 

By “dangerous,” I am referring to Karl Marx’s concept of the “dangerous classes,” including the peasants who stole wood from the semi-feudal landlord estates of 19th century Germany, and the majority-Indigenous poor who crowd the sidewalks of the Downtown Eastside, exercising illicit economies and non-domestic kinship relations. The dangerous classes, also referred to as “subaltern” by other theorists following Antonio Gramsci, are those sub-groups of the working class, and of the majority of Indigenous peoples, who live a significant part of their lives underground, outside the embrace of inclusion in bourgeois and colonial society.

A stigmatizing picture of the dangerous poor on Hastings Street (Mark van Manen/Province News)

Victim blaming and moral panic

Most of the debate in council chambers focused on defining and condemning the attitudes and behaviours of residents of Oppenheimer Park tent city. This technique amounted to victim blaming, where city councillors from the NPA and Green Party lined up to justify anti-homeless policies and actions by pointing, vaguely, at apparently public safety dangers around Oppenheimer.

Flames of the public safety moral panic were fanned by Green Councillor Pete Fry and the NPA’s Melissa DeGenova.

Without a trace of irony or self awareness about the NPA’s legacy of anti-union and anti-worker policies, Clr. DeGenova shed crocodile tears at one point out of her supposed concern for the safety of city workers, who had “sacrificed time with their families to be at the park day and night,” and who suffer from “post traumatic stress disorder” from being “assaulted.” She did not bother to substantiate a single one of these allegations. She also claimed, “It keeps me up at night that there are people in Oppenheimer Park who are… sitting ducks; who are facing criminality…”  

What criminality? Countering an amendment from Clr. Jean Swanson to include homeless residents of Oppenheimer Park as part of the city’s “collaboration” team tasked with divining a plan to end the camp, Green Councillor Pete Fry said, “I don’t see how a collaborative voluntary plan will address the concerns I have heard from people… other vulnerable people, who might not be homeless but are vulnerable… who live around the park… who want regular access to the park.” Fry also did not substantiate his claim about these more deserving vulnerable residents by referring to a specific letter or statement made to council in the process of discussion of the motion; we are just meant to trust him.

In the course of this discussion on safety, councillors voiced concern about the safety of city workers, and of unnamed “vulnerable” housed people in the area. Other than Clr. Jean Swanson, they did not, however, recognize the concerns about safety that had been presented to them on the record, in writing or in the presentations of residents of Oppenheimer Park tent city. These testimonies spoke directly to residents’ fears that a City decision to evict the camp would place them in danger.

In what Brett called “the coldest October on record,” the City’s refusal to provide a warming tent, as well as recent threats to shut off existing amenities like running water, is an attempt to push Oppenheimer residents out. But the camp is still a safer and more secure place than living scattered into alleys and doorways throughout the city.

The myth that homeless people are refusing housing

Accompanying the moral panic around safety was a parallel myth that unhoused people in Oppenheimer Park are there by choice: that they are bad faith actors who don’t want housing and are on the streets for mysterious reasons that are politically and morally suspect.

The loudest voices trumpeting this myth were city manager Sadhu Johnston and NPA Councillor DeGenova.  

City manager Johnston claimed, “We have been trying to arrange the voluntary decampment of the camp for the last three months, including offering housing or shelter to all the occupants.” His argument was that the City had done everything possible to house people in the park; that the process is now exhausted and force is needed. Besides that, he said, the cost to the City had become exorbitant and was causing harm to others in the area, including, presumably, home owners in Strathcona, whose services were reduced because resources had been redirected to the needy occupants of Oppenheimer Park. 

Clr. DeGenova, meanwhile, asserted that she had it on good information that everyone remaining in the park were there of their own choosing. Then she claimed, “There was a clip on Global News of a resident of the park saying that he refused housing, that he was staying there to protest,” revealing her authoritative source as a single news story from the summer.

Clr. Swanson corrected these narratives, explaining, “The motion says that everyone in the park has been offered housing. But only some of them were offered housing. Most of the occupants of the park have been offered only shelter beds, which is not housing.”

More psych-cops

Two points related to policing and mental health were snuck into the decampment motion. One called for increased city support for the “Car 87 and 88” programs, which respond to emergency mental health events with a mental health police team. Clr. Swanson argued that the point on police and Car 87 should be cut because “people who experience mental health crises say that police attendance makes it worse.” But the Green Party was insistent on redirecting more city funds towards psychiatric policing programs. Clr. Pete Fry said, “We should ask VCH to be more supportive of Car 87 and 88, not less.”

Clr. Weibe said that because “there are concerns in the DTES about some people who have difficulty interacting with the police,” he supported the spirit of the motion to increase a mental health mandate for police officers, particularly in the DTES. The opportunity, Weibe said, was to create a new, specific “Downtown Eastside strategy” for policing. The new taskforce he proposed, which was ultimately approved by council, will be called the “Homeless Outreach Services Team (HOST).”

Already branded with a clever acronym – HOST – the specific design of this outreach team and what gaps it would fulfill that are not already met by the swarm of already existing outreach teams in the DTES were not defined in the motion. The fact that it was proposed in the context of what Weibe called a “new strategy” for policing in the DTES raises the danger that this outreach team could, in the manner of the “Surrey Outreach Team,” be made up of or directed by police and bylaw officers.

If motions to create a Homeless Outreach Services Team, to beef-up the Car 87 and 88 police program, and to perform a full review of all service delivery and funding in the Downtown Eastside (which was also part of this motion) were proposed to council one at a time, each would have attracted interest and protest from a wide range of communities and organizations in the DTES. But containing them in this omnibus motion slipped them under the public radar.

COPE’s promise to govern well means more and better police

Clr. Jean Swanson is the lone representative of the social democratic Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) on city council. Throughout the discussion and protracted voting process, Clr. Swanson opposed motions that would sweep Oppenheimer camp with police force, and pressed for housing. She spoke in support of residents of the camp and against stigmatizing and criminalizing language and ideas voiced by councillors from all the other parties; including the Greens, NPA, and the centre-left One City. 

But even Clr. Swanson voted in favour of the motions that would increase policing powers in the Downtown Eastside in the name increased health and safety “outreach.” 

The outreach police may be organized through or in partnership with the VPD directly, or through social work agencies, which operate as the “soft power” of the state and facilitate and do surveillance for the “hard power” of police and courts. Jade Boyd’s 2016 study of surveillance in supportive housing shows that there is no neat division between soft and hard power in Canada’s governance of the poor. So although the motion was not clear about who would populate or direct this new outreach body, in the end, whether “HOST” is directly staffed by police or by social workers who act as a relay to police is about the adornments of power, not about the character of that power.

The problem of COPE’s support of more and “better” policing demonstrates something for activists about the fundamental problem of governing. To govern “well” is the promise of COPE, the NDP, and various democratic socialists in the US. But to govern well, within what this political current refers to as a “political revolution,” means maintaining settler colonial and capitalist social relations. Social democrats offer us a “political revolution”—the replacement of one group of politicians with another. Getting elected is a premise of this revolution, which requires that political revolutionaries must appear respectable and reasonable. The possibilities of their new parliamentary politics are bound by the practical limits of a given historical moment. 

The challenge for COPE in October 2019 is that it is not possible within the limits of pragmatic reform, and the impetus to govern well and reasonable, to work for the immediate interests of people living in Oppenheimer Park. The social movement slogan of “homes now” does not translate directly to city council chambers because building, or, more expediently, expropriating, enough housing to take everyone who is unhoused off the street would require breaking with the pragmatic limits of political-only revolution and would bring COPE into overt conflict with landlords and capital.

Decades of government austerity, a financialized economy that has driven evictions, and an aggressive resource extraction economy that has continued the direct dispossession of Indigenous nations and the displacement of low-income Indigneous people into the streets of cities — all this has led to extreme income inequality, with widespread poverty on one side and entrenched wealth on the other. Practical reform that does not alter social relations in revolutionary ways, might slightly alleviate the experience of extreme poverty for some, but it cannot end homelessness.

Besides COPE’s support for the HOST outreach team, this limitation also showed up in Clr. Swanson’s proposed — and mostly defeated — amendments to the Green-NPA motion. The three points Swanson tried to add were: to direct Mayor and Council to work with the Province to create more housing options (this passed); to work with BC Housing to open more modular housing (this failed); and to create more winter shelter options for people who are stuck outside (also failed). 

Modular housing, a plank of COPE’s election campaign in Vancouver’s 2018 civic election, seemed, when it was first announced in 2017, to be a good interim move to house homeless people until permanent social housing could be built. But since then it has been roundly criticized by people who have been warehoused in modular housing because senior governments are not making moves to build permanent social housing, which means residents will be stuck forever in rapidly deteriorating, tiny, repurposed mining camp trailers. And, even more importantly, the “supportive housing” model that is used to operate modular housing is institutional, and tied intimately into policing and the surveillance and social regulation of low-income communities.

Worse still, Clr. Swanson’s proposed amendment to open more winter shelters goes directly against the demand of people living in Oppenheimer Park. Many residents are refusing to leave the tent city for shelters because, they say, shelters are more unsafe, undignified, and hostile to their organic community and Indigenous kinship relations, than the relatively self-governed autonomous space of the tent city. 

The only reforms that will work within the bourgeois and settler colonial objective of breaking up Oppenheimer Park tent city are within what are ultimately carceral institutions: policing, psych wards, supportive and modular housing, and shelters. This experience shows that the only technologies available to COPE to govern “well” over the dangerous poor is with police, police, and more police. Progressive institutions have been overtaken by the policing element inherent to them. Like an alien symbiote, police have occupied every form of governing the poor, whether outreach, housing, mental health and harm reduction, or, of course, the inevitable eventual court order to break up the camp. Supporting any available form of governing the poor means supporting the cops.

VANDU marching in support of Oppenheimer tent city (Vancouver Courier)

City agency collaboration to undermine and break homeless community power

The alternative that breaks past the limits of police reform is the autonomous self activity of the dangerous poor, which the Green-NPA motion directly targets. Oppenheimer Park tent city is a political problem for those who govern because it is a site of visible resistance and organizing by the dangerous poor, which Councillors Fry and DeGenova refer to as “criminality” in order to justify repression. Attacking this hub of low-income community activity will be a political, symbolic, and logistical disruption of the autonomous organizing power of the dangerous poor.

On the point of the city’s plan to displace the tent city itself, advocates were able to win a slight amendment. Rather than “collaborate with the Parks Board” for the “decampment” of the tent city in order to return the park to regular use, the motion that passed named the goal of this collaboration as finding better options than living in the park, “including” housing.

CCAP’s Fiona York says the new “collaboration” plan between City staff and Parks is “a touch better” than the “decampment” motion because it emphasizes finding housing, not clearing the park. But, she said, the problem is that the motion sequesters Parks Board with City staff, who will pressure them to shut down the camp. The danger is that city staff will create an exclusive channel with the Parks Board, which, as city manager Johnson said, is the body that has the jurisdiction to apply for a court injunction. 

Residents and advocates for the tent city have already established a collaboration with officials. They have been meeting with Parks Board Commissioners and with officials from BC Housing ever since the Parks Board refused to seek a court injunction to displace the camp back in August. City officials, as well as the Fire Department and VPD, have always refused to participate in the collaboration circle with Oppenheimer tent city residents, Parks, and BC Housing. The decisions made at the exclusive City-Parks table will likely supercede the prior collaboration between tent city residents and the Parks Board.

At the last moment, Clr. Swanson tried to amend the motion so that city staff would include “current residents of Oppenheimer Park” in their collaboration table, but she was not even able to get another councillor to second this amendment.

Since the beginning of the summer, the residents of Oppenheimer Park tent city have developed their own governing structures, their own community support infrastructure, and a political voice, which they have exercised in protest as well as through negotiation with government bodies. The city council decision to exclusively manage the decamping of Oppenheimer tent city behind closed doors is an attack on homeless people’s autonomous community structures, and on their resistant political power.

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