News / Vancouver

Opposition to social housing in B.C. reveals discrimination, say lawyers

Homelessness has grown across B.C., but so has opposition to shelters and supportive housing

Sugar Mountain, a tent city located in East Vancouver from August to December of 2016.

Jennifer Gauthier / For Metro

Sugar Mountain, a tent city located in East Vancouver from August to December of 2016.

“The problem should not be pushed onto a residential, mainly retired neighbourhood that opposes the facility in their area.”

“Will I have to worry about needles on the playground now? Will I not be able to let (my children) walk to school?”

"We're quite supportive of our province's social housing initiatives ... but maybe there's a way to have the province create a development that meets the form and character of the neighbourhood.”

“Our tagline is, ‘Great idea, wrong location.”

“We feel so strongly about this being an inappropriate location that we will more than likely cease our renovation and move to a new location, if this is approved.”

The comments, all from the past six months, come from residents and business owners in Sechelt, Chilliwack, Kelowna, Vancouver and Langley. All are directed towards proposals to open new homeless shelters or supportive housing, and in many cases, community opposition has delayed or cancelled planned projects.

To Pivot Legal Society, the pattern points to a deeper problem: discrimination based on “social condition,” which includes income source, mental illness, level of education and housing status (that is, whether people are housed, or homeless).

“We’re in a position now where we’ve seen homelessness continue to grow and we’re starting to see some interventions at the provincial level,” said Darcie Bennett, director of strategy at the legal advocacy group.

“For us to see the extent to which stigma and discrimination are playing a part in putting a damper on these interventions from moving forward was really important.”

Pivot is urging the newly reconvened B.C. Human Rights Commission to examine the issue, and consider whether the province’s human rights code should be changed to protect people against this kind of discrimination.

“There’s a two part piece to this,” said Bennett. “One is enshrining that protection in the human rights code, so people who feel they’ve been discriminated against or are experiencing discrimination on the basis of social condition.

“Another really important piece is education: How do we start having conversations with British Columbians around discrimination?”

Quebec has had protections for social condition since 1975. New Brunswick and the Northwest Territories also have laws against this kind of discrimination, and there is currently a bill before Ontario’s provincial legislature proposing similar protections.

As an example of how this kind of human rights protection can be used, Bennett pointed to cases in Toronto and three other Ontario cities that led to a relaxation of bylaws requiring a certain separation distance between group homes for people with disabilities.

Bennett acknowledged that many concerned residents who speak out against projects are genuinely fearful. That’s why education is as important as legal changes, she said.

“They’ve take on strong education work and helped counter some of those concerns that people have that having certain types of people living in your neighbourhood, having certain types of housing, is going to have a detrimental effect,” Bennett said of work done by Ontario’s Human Rights Commission.
“But also keeping it within a human rights framework that we don’t get to choose our neighbours — and municipalities have an obligation to create inclusive communities.”

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