There is a common narrative among people who live on the southwest coast of Canada regarding the large number of unhoused people in the Downtown Eastside (DTES). This view states that the reason for the large increase in unhoused and mentally ill people in the area is due to the closing down of River View Hospital, an older mental health facility in Coquitlam shut down by the province in July 2012.
This narrative misses the larger, complete failure of neoliberal capitalism to meet the needs of the people who live here. In fact, it created the current situation we are in.
The idea of institutionalizing patients with mental illness – shuttering them away from the rest of the population – was no longer seen as the proper way to accommodate those individuals. Methods of patient control and restraint used in the facility were also outdated and outright abusive (p.5-20). So the hospital was shut down.
According to the common narrative, this closure forced all the patients onto the streets, typically into the DTES. This is no doubt at least partly true.
Revealing root causes
While reading Abolition. Feminism. Now. by Angela Davis and others, I came across this quote by Liat Ben-Moshe from another book Decarcerating Disability which challenges this narrative. While the context of the book is American, the same applies to Canada:
“Deinstitutionalization did not lead to homelessness and increased incarceration. Racism and neoliberalism did, via privatization, budget cuts in all service/welfare sectors, and little to no funding for affordable and accessible housing and social services, while the budgets for corrections, policing, and punishment (of mostly poor people of color) skyrocketed.”
The authors then go on to describe a prison/police abolitionist, feminist frame of view toward the current (un)housing crisis within the DTES:
“Abolition feminism explicitly rejects state attempts to mobilize vulnerability and difference for the purpose of expanding carcerality and instead works to highlight the role of the state in perpetuating violence, demanding engagements that both support people that are most affected and address the root causes of incarceration – poverty, white supremacy, misogyny.”
The neoliberal state, under both BCNDP and BCLiberal governments, has caused the crisis by ignoring people’s most basic needs: food, housing, healthcare of the mind and body, safe drug supply, and ending prohibition of drugs. Indeed, the federal government has also failed as many of these issues span across the country and into federal jurisdiction.
As basic social services were being defunded, more and more money was poured into policing and prison budgets.
Take housing as an obvious, concrete example. Housing as a speculative market is such a huge problem these days that simply can’t be ignored any longer. However, instead of a housing-first policy, our political leaders have opted for market-incentive-based “solutions” to the problem: measly measures such as speculation and empty homes taxes that are nowhere near as effective as we need.
As housing costs soar, more people will be unable to meet the lower threshold of rent and mortgage payments, causing more homelessness. We could just give homes to people who need them; it would benefit us all too.
Breaking the cycle of perpetual policing
As a result of these governmental failures, the police become the response to these social and political problems. That’s what problems such as the (un)housing crisis and overdose crisis are; they are not individual moral failings. These social and political problems effectively criminalize those who don’t have stable living accommodations, for whatever reason they have. Note that they are absolutely not criminals, they are criminalized for trying to survive.
This gets to the heart of the defund the police movement. The demands of the movement are easy enough to understand. Simply reallocate duties and the corresponding funds to other programs better able to deal with social problems.
The heart of the movement, however, is much deeper: the police cannot ever solve broad social and political problems created by the neglect of the neoliberal state. Nor should they ever be expected to. They will forever be locked in a chase to find more crime which is continuously generated by our economic system. A dog chasing its tail.
Alternatives to policing must be found. A strong social safety net, or even a new system incorporating economic democracy, is what we need to solve large-scale social, political, and economic problems. Broad, sweeping changes are needed to uproot problems inherent to the market-based system in which Capital dictates who is housed and who is not, who eats and who doesn’t, who is criminalized and who isn’t.
Josh is the main author of Northern Currents. Josh is an electrician of 10 years and has been interested in radical politics for even longer. Follow me on Twitter at @josh_nc.