The Downtown Eastside (DTES) has been in the news a lot, what with the tent city in Oppenheimer Park gradually becoming a thing of the past. The camp that originated in mid-July of this year has been hit with a series of eviction notices for months; a Supreme Court order from late September ruled that the more than 200 camp residents would have to depart by October 15 at 10 p.m., with risk of arrest if they stayed any later. While evicting people from what has become their home is complicated enough, the issue has become further convoluted with the finding of a dead body among the tents shortly before the eviction deadline. The deceased is not believed to have died through foul play, although an autopsy still needs to be performed.
Mayor Gregor Robertson gave his sympathies on the death, while remaining firm in his belief that the tents had to go: “[T]his tragedy certainly demonstrates why tent camps are not safe, why the city has had great concerns about this camp continuing to be there, and particularly the safety issues for elderly people.”
Clearly Robertson is very concerned with the well-being of residents of the DTES, as evidenced by his alleged voter suppression of the area in the upcoming municipal election. As the Mainlander reports, there are only two advance voting stations east of Main Street, compared with five advance voting stations on the Westside.
It’s unfortunate that Mayor Robertson hasn’t put his advanced polling stations where his mouth is for the elderly, disabled, racialized, and impoverished communities that predominantly make up the DTES, and for whom he is oh-so-concerned.
With the increasing discussions of how to help the residents of the Eastside, it’s questionable that the people in need of help themselves are being erased from the conversation. Two lonely poll stations don’t accurately represent the vastness of the Downtown Eastside—described in the City of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan from 2012 as spanning roughly 202 hectares. This expanse is especially significant when you take into consideration that the residents are predominantly disadvantaged populations.
As DTES resident Fraser Stuart explained in an interview with the Georgia Straight, taking the bus to the stations isn’t financially possible for many people: “After a week and a half, your welfare or your pension money is gone … So to pony up another $2.75 to go and vote—that’s a luxury. That’s your food for the day, basically.”
Wendy Pedersen, organizer of Downtown Eastside Votes, further explains to the Mainlander that “The city must know that DTES residents can’t, even if they wanted to, get to Yaletown to vote. So many of them need extra time for the registration and voting process because of stringent ID requirements (no more vouching for people this time).”
Chief election officer Janice MacKenzie told the Georgia Straight that they took into consideration accessibility via transit, and ensuring that they wouldn’t “grind programming to a halt at any location that we select” for the advance polling stations.
It’s bizarre that the DTES currently has fewer than half the advance polling stations that the Westside has. Vision Vancouver deputy campaign director Stepan Vdovine expressed his concern over the absence of DTES advance voting stations in a letter to MacKenzie. He further stated that “analysis of past voter turnout shows that these areas have a higher likelihood of voting than other parts of Vancouver.”
Although Mayor Robertson has proclaimed his goals for improving the lives of impoverished populations—including addressing housing and income gaps, and providing social services—the reality is that the conditions of DTES residents have not ameliorated. While the City of Vancouver has spent its time “Reviewing; planning; getting feedback; [and] measuring results,” the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) has identified three key needs for the DTES residents. The organization, which is dedicated to helping “improve the lives of people who use illicit drugs,” listed these needs in an open letter: “housing, Indigenous land claims, and municipal services at Oppenheimer Park.”
Let’s take VANDU’s first point of housing as an example: the City of Vancouver recently announced its approval of $1-billion dedicated to services throughout Vancouver; roughly $125-million of that is earmarked for affordable housing. The National Post reports that millions of dollars have been spent on single room occupancy hotels (SROs) over the years, and I imagine this will continue to be the case.
SROs sound ideal at first, offering temporary or long-term housing for those in need of help; yet a national study from 2013 indicated that the mortality rate of residents in SROs is five times the national average. This is in part because the help and services that the people need don’t accompany the provision of housing. SROs consequently become increasingly unsafe, as more people suffering from both mental and physical illnesses, as well as addictions, get shoved into the tiny accommodations: researcher William Honer of the UBC study on SROs states that residents might be in spaces of 3×3 metres. The health of SRO residents is often aggravated by this unhelpful help. It’s no wonder, as VANDU states in its open letter, that “campers are currently paying rent to live in SROs, but have chosen the healthier living conditions of Oppenheimer Park.”
These complex issues demonstrate why the voter suppression of the Downtown Eastside is so offensive, and concerning. Discouraging the DTES voters from voting, whether unintentional or “unintentional,” can only lead to the continued mistreatment of some of Vancouver’s most-vulnerable.
Originally published in the Other Press.