photos: Stock photo.

Let’s make room for each other

Director’s corner: Homelessness is dangerous year-round, and extreme summer weather only adds to that danger

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With temperatures topping 30 degrees across B.C. in early August, I’m reminded of the common—and false—perception that homelessness is only dangerous in winter.

The truth is, homelessness is dangerous year-round. It puts individuals in risky situations, adds monumental stress, and exacerbates existing health conditions. Extremes like this month’s weather only add to the danger.

With the added layer of haze from wildfires settling in, summer can be hard on the health of vulnerable people.

People who are homeless or living in substandard housing have few options for relief from the heat and smoke.

This is made even more difficult when low-income people’s access to public space is stigmatized and limited. As many of us spend more time outside in summer months and our parks are well-used, I’m reminded too of how public space is a political thing.

When you’re unhoused or in substandard housing, your only space is public space. Your local public park doubles as a living room. This speaks to why we need to make sure our parks and public spaces are accessible to everyone, with an emphasis on accessibility for those who have few other places to be.

As I walked through a small park in my neighbourhood last month, I passed a man walking his dog. “Ridiculous,” he scoffed as he looked over my shoulder at two tents set up in the shade of a tree. “This is a park, not a campground.”

If I’m being charitable, his anger is understandable. I’m angry when I see tents in a park, too. But the direction of our anger and what we do with it matters most here. It shows us how powerful stigma is when we decide to direct our anger at homeless people rather than at the system that failed them.

This misdirected anger plays out in many forms, and it’s often directed at the symptom rather than the cause: from NIMBYism (Not-in-My-Backyard-ism), to punitive and anti-homeless architecture in public spaces, to bylaw officers sweeping homeless camps, to disdain, threats, and violence against homeless people.

The time and energy we expend harassing homeless people for existing in the world our policies have created is a distraction. Let’s focus on where there’s possibility for meaningful change.

Remember, repeat: Homelessness is not inevitable. It exists because of human action and it can be dismantled by human action.

Where ought we direct the energy borne of this frustration? How about our new government?

Last month the BC NDP took power in B.C. with the support of the BC Greens. It’s the first non-BC Liberal government in sixteen years. Stepping out from a haze of austerity, I’m cautiously hopeful for positive change.

And there are signs of hope if we look.

Just days after being sworn in, the new government raised both disability and social assistance by $100. It’s not much when the rates have been frozen for a decade, but it’s a start. As part of his cabinet appointments, John Horgan created a new Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions led by Judy Darcy. I’m hopeful this signifies coming bold and thoughtful action in the opioid epidemic. I’ll be on the watch for meaningful moves on housing and homelessness.

Let’s hold our new government to account and build a community where no one is forced to sleep in parks. We’ll be pushing for real investments in housing and clear targets to end homelessness. We’ll also be on the lookout for a poverty reduction plan with teeth, and keen to remind the BC NDP and BC Greens of their promise to support a death review panel in response to Megaphone’s Homeless Deaths Report.

Let’s keep an eye out for each other.

Look for signs of heat stress impacting our neighbours, both housed and unhoused, and consider carrying a spare water bottle to pass out to someone on the street.

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Jessica Hannon is the executive director of Megaphone Magazine.

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