VANCOUVER — British Columbia’s housing policies are allowing landlords to evict drug users in Vancouver’s rooming houses and there’s little or no recourse for people to defend themselves against a practice that is often illegal and creates a risk of overdose, a new study says.
The study by the BC Centre on Substance Use says low-income tenants living in private and non-profit single-room occupancy units in the Downtown Eastside are targeted specifically for their drug use and often evicted without notice or they are given just a verbal notice.
Research scientist Ryan McNeil, one of six authors of the study, said dispute resolution measures under the Residential Tenancy Act can be inaccessible, especially for people who have become homeless and can’t file their paperwork in a timely manner.
Evictions leading to homelessness can also mean people lose touch with their trusted drug dealer, often leading to a change in patterns that involves more use of the highly addictive stimulant crystal meth or injecting while they’re dope sick, McNeil said Tuesday.
“People’s lives are thrown into chaos. All of the routines, the patterns that people establish to negotiate using drugs under criminalization to make money to support themselves or just live their day-to-day lives, are just thrown out the window.”
The study involving 50 people living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside was published Tuesday in the International Journal of Drug Policy and completed after a year of data collection that ended in 2016, when the province declared a public health emergency after a sharp spike in overdose deaths.
“We were doing this work right as the crisis was hitting Vancouver and one of the saddest moments was realizing that we weren’t finding people for follow-up interviews because they had died. And if that doesn’t lay out the life and death stakes of evictions, I don’t know what does,” McNeil said.
“One of the challenges that we encountered with this study is just understanding the scope of evictions in the Downtown Eastside,” he said. “The reality is that these aren’t documented anywhere and that’s incredibly concerning.”
The Housing Ministry said in a statement it will consider concerns raised in the study on changing tenancy laws as it reviews recommendations made last December by a rental housing task force that called for measures to ensure tenants know where to go for help and addressing the specific needs of non-profit and supportive housing providers.
The ministry said a tenant overdose response program established in March 2017 has allowed dozens of tenants to connect with other health services and community resources. It said researchers at the BC Centre on Substance Use found the tenant-led intervention highly successful in responding to overdoses in single-room occupancy hotels.
However, McNeil, who was the senior investigator in an evaluation of that program, said it had nothing to do with evictions involving drug users but instead involved expanding the distribution of the overdose reversing drug naloxone in single-room occupancy hotels.
“One of our principle findings was that there needs to be policy interventions to address people’s risk of eviction,” he said, adding researchers documented drug users in that study, recently published in the Journal of Health, being evicted because of their involvement in the program.
Vancouver’s bylaws define so-called single-room occupancy units as hotels or rooming houses with less than about 320 square feet that typically include shared bathrooms and come without full kitchens.
The units are considered necessary affordable housing for people who would otherwise be on the street but deplorable conditions in some hotels make them unlivable.
The study says noise complaints and breaches of building policies were among the most commonly cited reasons for eviction but enforcement was prejudicial against drug users and building policies, such as those involving curfews, were not typical in other types of rental housing.
DJ Larkin, an experienced housing rights lawyer who was an adviser on the study, said landlords have all the power so the law must be changed to provide some rights to people who face prejudice simply because they are poor and use drugs.
“The power imbalance is one of the fundamental reasons why provincial reform is necessary and I also think it’s an answer to people who say ‘Why should landlords have to have someone who they don’t like as a tenant?’ None of that is relevant to whether or not there should be adequate protections in place to protect the rule of law and protect fairness,” she said.
Jean Swanson, a Vancouver councillor and former longtime anti-poverty and tenants’ activist in the Downtown Eastside, said most people living in the neighbourhood don’t know their tenancy rights.
Some supportive housing run by non-profit organizations are excluded from the Residential Tenancy Act she said, calling that a “travesty.”
Swanson said she is considering bringing in a motion that would give full tenancy rights to all tenants.
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Camille Bains, The Canadian Press