COVID-19 “another fatal layer” for Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

For many years, the Pivot Legal Society has been a prominent voice for people facing human rights challenges in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. The group says that today, “in these trying times, Pivot has been re-evaluating our work and where we can be the most useful during COVID-19.”

A recent statement from Pivot says, “The people we serve and work alongside have been facing overlapping emergencies for decades. Amid a housing shortage, toxic drug supply, and rampant violations of sex workers’ rights, COVID-19 adds another fatal layer of consequences to a landscape rife with injustice. The communities we serve are rapidly becoming the accepted collateral damage of the pandemic as they are left profoundly and structurally vulnerable absent an adequate social safety net.

“Self-isolation is impossible without a house or if you share a bathroom with 20 people in a single room occupancy (“SRO”) building. Without a safe and regulated supply of drugs unsupervised withdrawal and drug poisoning will continue to rise. People whose income is not legally recognized (and not eligible for Employment Insurance) will be forced to forgo self-isolation and continue to work in unsafe conditions. At the same time, police are exacerbating the problem, continuing to over-police the Downtown Eastside (“DTES”) and forcing informal economies, dangerously, further underground.

“Though devastating, COVID-19 has been illuminating. The government’s rapid response to this pandemic (compared with its sluggish response to a 3-years-old opioid crisis) puts into stark relief where its priorities lie and don’t lie. Our community has been told for years that governments are doing everything they can to address injustice (all the while dismissing calls for housing, a rent freeze, safe supply, etc.), and its rapid, aggressive, and unified response to COVID-19 reminds us that this simply isn’t the case. The silver lining is that progress is happening. Over the last few weeks in British Columbia, we have seen an eviction ban, rent freeze, and improvements to safe supply. The door is ajar; now we need to push!”

Pivot is campaigning for a number of new and updated policy changes to tackle the crisis, including:

  • Access to individual housing for everyone who is currently unhoused and unable to self-isolate. Emergency shelters cannot address concerns of community spread, and perpetuate the cycle of displacement and surveillance of poor people.
  • Recent steps to create access to a safe and regulated supply of drugs need to be rolled out efficiently, accessibly and permanently.
  • Guest policies should allow families to stay together, including chosen family and kinship networks. Pivot argues that SROs and supportive housing facilities in the DTES have been unreasonably quick to prohibit guests of residents, with a negative impact on poor people, particularly those who are Indigenous.
  • Income supports that don’t discriminate against sex workers and people who work in “gray” economies like street vending. Pivot points out that “the newly announced income support programs by both the federal and provincial governments exclude many people who earn a significant portion of their income through informal economies, honoraria, and stipends including sex workers, street vendors, people who sell drugs and pan-handlers.”
  • A stop to criminalization and policing based on existing stigma against poor and already criminalized people.

Pivot urges people to respect health protocols and stay home if they can, but also to find ways to show solidarity with health care workers and with all those who cannot self-isolate to protect themselves because of systemic barriers. The group’s website (www.pivotlegal.org) lists important organizations in the DTES which need support at this critical time.


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