Today, the Vision Vancouver majority on my city council has tabled a motion to enact a new bylaw to fine the homeless $10,000 for sleeping in the streets. Obviously, there is no expectation of the fine being paid. Instead, I imagine there is a belief that there is a better chance of imprisoning the homeless for repeated defiance of orders to pay fines.
Two quotations come to mind in response to this travesty of justice. The first is by Anatole France, a quotation that many housing activists are circulating today, “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
The quotation most applicable to his piece, however, comes from Tom Wayman, describing the Social Credit Restraint program of 1982, “we were not to notice that in the air, a sour odour was leaking as if from a refinery upwind. It was a stench of sulphur, of worn dollar bills, of half-digested steak, belched through false smiles at the poor. Soon everyone could smell it. Some people pretended it wasn’t there.”
The reason Vision Vancouver can get away with the brutal war they have waged on affordable housing, destroying thousands of affordable units through sweetheart rezoning deals with their donors, the reason they can get away with this new bylaw, the reason they can get away with redefining homelessness to exclude every homeless person who did not sleep on the street last night is simple: they are a coalition of Greens and New Democrats. They are, by definition, as a matter of identity, progressive.
As I said in my piece of Third Wayism and the Downtown Eastside, modern “progressives” remain relevant and useful servants of capital because they can more effectively de-mobilize people who would otherwise be outraged by such measures. When Mike Harcourt’s government cut welfare rates from $547 per month to $500, prohibited job-seeking migrants from obtaining welfare for their first three months in the province, prohibited refugees from either working or receiving welfare and cut welfare for over ten thousand disabled people by 16% month, he could institute these “reforms” with few consequences. Many trade unionists, anti-poverty activists and other leftists bit their tongues and those who did speak out were marginalized within the NDP for their disloyalty.
Once this kind of silence was established, his government went on to deliberately overturn the advice of local police in 100 Mile House and turn a small farm occupation by a handful of First Nations activists into a military incident, complete with tanks, land mines and over ten thousand bullets fired at the protesters, wounding one young woman and terrorizing the other dozen protesters. Every day of the Gustafsen Lake siege, the NDP’s pet polling firm, Viewpoints Research, was in the field, testing to see how voters liked the hard line the party was taking against the Indians. When voters indicated they liked the siege but wanted an even harder line, the Attorney General ordered further escalation. Hence the BC government using land mines on its own citizens, even as Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy negotiated the international land mine ban treaty in Montréal.
Punitive actions against poor and indigenous people by wealthy social democrats have a consistent logic that, when successfully applied, helps to connect them to working class voters whom they fear might abandon them.
Living paycheque to paycheque is terrifying, as is losing your affordable shabby apartment and being forced to move to Surrey or pay $1200 per month for one of Vision’s “affordable” new bachelor units. For more and more working class, Vancouverites, Vision has gone from being the party who moderately inconveniences them by installing bike lanes that cut their pizza delivery job tips by reducing the number of deliveries per hour into a real threat. They have become a party that is systematically destroying industrial employment by rezoning and annihilating the affordable housing stock at an accelerating rate, faster than any NPA regime that has ever governed this city.
When you’re living paycheque to paycheque, facing eviction from your apartment, the sight of homeless people on the streets is disquieting, one thinks to oneself, “could that be me one day soon? I still haven’t found a home I can afford. What if I don’t find one by the end of the month?
Mike Harcourt and Gregor Robertson rely on the votes of people who look at their homeless fellow citizens with anxiety. And to keep their votes they need to do two things. First, they have to reduce the visibility of homelessness and other frightening forms of poverty. Hence the project of incarcerating the homeless.
But their second line of approach is even more dangerous. They attempt to make homelessness seem pathological and criminal. They reassure the working poor that homelessness is not something that happens to regular, law-abiding, healthy people; it is something that only happens to people who were crazy or criminal all along. They seek to transform the homeless into an alien species, a type of vermin. Hence Harcourt’s famous speech introducing his reforms, promising to crack down on those “welfare cheats, deadbeats and varmints.” By describing the very poor as a kind of law-breaking vermin, he helped to reassure the working poor that they couldn’t become homeless because they homeless were nothing like them, not even the same species.
Most hard-working people pride themselves on being law-abiding, so if every homeless person they encounter is, by definition, a criminal facing incarceration in the near future, they feel safer; they can believe themselves to be different from the homeless because of their law-abiding nature. Similarly, the conflation of pre-existing madness with homelessness is reassuring. Many homeless people are mad but that is often because madness and homelessness are mutually reinforcing phenomena. I know I’d go crazy if I lost my home. Right now, I’m crazier than I was a few months ago because I’m not entirely clear on where my rent money is coming from next month.
Persecuting, incarcerating, blaming and pathologizing the homeless, then, is an attempt to reassure the working poor that they cannot become homeless, first, by rendering the homeless less visible, and second, by defining them as intrinsically unlike those who still have homes.
That is why these attacks on the very poor are part and parcel of Vision’s mass renoviction strategy. Vision received the votes of 70% of the city’s renters in the last election. To maintain that support, it is crucial for them to reassure people living paycheque to paycheque that, by virtue of their nature, they could never end up begging on the street or sleeping under a bridge or in a shelter because they’re not crazy criminals. As long as people believe that homelessness is caused by character defects.
And so, Vision hopes, they feel mildly reassured as our mayor flashes his pearly whites while the homeless are dragged off to jail, out of sight and out of mind. And we can reassure ourselves that nothing too bad has happened. After all, this policy is being implemented by a team including a former NDP MLA, Canada’s first Green school trustee and a longtime Communist Party activist; it must be progressive.