White Van Privilege follows the life of one white passenger van from conception to death: first roadtrip to final sale.
White Van Privilege is a collection of poems that considers the views from the front driver’s seat of a 2008 Chevy Express 15-Passenger van, and from standing next to a tent in a homelessness and drug-toxicity crisis made worse by a global pandemic. Turns out, the views are pretty similar.
All proceeds go towards my law school education with which I will use to rapidly dismantle the drug war and systemic racism, law by law, regulation by regulation. And/or authenticate your last will and testament. Either way.
Order today and there’s chance you’ll get it before December 25, but I doubt it.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating long-standing issues related to homelessness, including lack of affordable housing, unemployment, poverty, wealth inequality, and ongoing impacts of colonization. Homelessness is often accompanied by narratives rooted in individual blame, criminalization, and reinforcement of substance use and mental health related stigma. Visible homelessness, in the form of encampments, are manifestations of government policy failures that neglect to uphold the human right to housing, and demonstrate eroding investments in affordable housing, income and systemic supports. Encampments make visible that some in our community lack basic determinants of health such as food, water, sanitation, safety, and the right to self-determination. In order for public health to effectively and equitably promote health and enact commitments to social justice, we argue that public health must adopt a human right to housing and homeless encampments. Embracing a human rights perspective means public health would advocate first and foremost for adequate housing and other resources rooted in self-determination of encampment residents. In the absence of housing, public health would uphold human rights through the provision of public health resources and prohibition on evictions of encampments until adequate housing is available.”
The following was originally posted on Poverty Kills 2020’s blog, and was written with help from Joshua at Poverty Kills. It outlines the ongoing pandemic shower saga and the City’s inadequate response.
Since the first COVID-19 restrictions were implemented in ‘victoria’ in March 2020, one survival service (of many) that has been restricted for those forced to shelter outside is basic hygiene access in the form of showers. While there have been several organizations that have been offering limited access to showers throughout the pandemic, overall these services have been reduced, restricted, and largely inaccessible to those sheltering in parks away from the downtown core. With ongoing changes to bylaws and enforcement, an order from the provincial government restricting sheltering in two locations, and increasing hostility from housed people, campers have been continually and increasingly displaced from the core of the city where most shower services are located.
On November 21, 2020, in massive numbers, bylaw enforcement officers and VicPD tore down community-built crowdfunded showers and a community care tent at MEEGAN. Shortly after this heavy-handed display of colonial power, the City announced a one-time Emergency Social Services Provision Grant to respond to immediate hygiene and survival needs until March 31, 2021 when the City is insisting everyone living outside will be housed (despite no apparent plan to achieve that). While more funding for resources and infrastructure is useful, the City is also the cause of many of the problems and this grant has political motivations and implications.
From the start the City has prioritized money for increased bylaw enforcement and policing, including a recent allocation of nearly $600,000 additional funding to hire five more Bylaw officers (which is intended to be permanent, at $491,000/year) and to pay police more overtime for increased policing near larger encampments. The City has repeatedly changed rules about sheltering, forcing people to move multiple times, and arbitrarily deciding on permissible locations with no thought to liveability of those locations — as was horribly witnessed a week ago when heavy rains flooded many people’s tents, destroying their belongings — and even spent money on a legal injunction to displace campers from one location. And the City has also repeatedly refused to communicate and work constructively with groups providing support and services on the ground.
Despite many misgivings about all of this, given the huge need for more shower access Nic, a community volunteer involved in shower advocacy, spent many hours sleuthing shower options and bringing groups together to support a collaborative, peer-centred mobile shower project. But the way the City set up the grant meant this was doomed to fail.
We are sharing Nic’s work for two reasons. As part of broader understanding about how colonial systems work, we want to illustrate how the one-time Emergency Social Services Provision Grant was inaccessible, problematic, and perpetuates colonial control, and how the City continues to interfere with unhoused people’s autonomy to decide what they need and who they trust and want to work with. We also wanted to share info on mobile shower logistics in case it helps people in other regions who are considering mobile showers to have a realistic sense of what is involved.
The City’s grant was limited to $100,000 one-time funding. To explore what could be done with that funding, as a starting point Nic consulted with LavaMaeX, a highly reputable and experienced mobile shower and hygiene provider who offers support and consultation to organizations looking to develop mobile shower programs across the world. For some items he also did additional research on costs.
Although the mayor posted on her blog a picture of a three-stall mobile shower trailer from another region as an example of what the grant was supposedly making possible, the reality is that even a smaller mobile shower project can’t properly be done for $100,000. That amount is not enough to buy a shower trailer and cover the costs offreight and duty for the import of the trailer, a vehicle to tow the trailer, wages, vehicle insurance, liability insurance, ICBC coverage, materials (propane to heat the water, gas for truck and generator, towels, sanitizing products, etc.), laundry services, unit parking costs, and vehicle/trailer maintenance. Below we break down the expenses. All estimates are in ‘canadian’ dollars.
Shower trailer: We believe it is unethical to consider infrastructure that is inaccessible to people with mobility disabilities. However, for a more solid understanding of costs Nic looked at a full range of options, consulting both with LavaMaeX for a general sense of cost range and five commercial shower trailer suppliers for more specific estimates. A 3-stall trailer with stairs (which would have required ramping and other accessibility customization) or a 2-stall wheelchair-accessible trailer would have cost over $60,000, and a 2-stall non-accessible trailer (which would have required ramping and other accessibility customization) would cost over $40,000. Obviously, having only two stalls would significantly reduce the number of people who could use the shower on a daily basis. LavaMaeX estimated that a 3-stall trailer could provide 35 showers per day, already not enough for the 200+ people at all 11 different sites across the city to shower even once weekly.
Vehicle with towing capacity: LavaMaeX estimated over $50,000 to purchase a new truck with sufficient towing capacity. It’s a huge outlay especially for just a four-month project, but there aren’t other good options. Shopping on the used market means the vehicle risks being unreliable with high maintenance costs, leasing a vehicle is generally not possible or cost-effective if the lease is less than a two-year contract, most car rental companies will void their insurance if the vehicle is found towing a trailer, and U-Haul vehicles that are capable of towing a trailer weighing 9,000 lbs are not rentable by the month.
Wages: To run a three-stall mobile shower service operating 4 days a week with one day for deep cleaning and maintenance, LavaMaeXestimated a budget of over $28,000 per month for wages alone. This far exceeded the City budget so Nic tried to take it down to a bare bones level of what he felt was possible in local conditions and given the size of the City grant. In the peer-oriented staffing model Nic came up with, the labour costs alone to operate a mobile two-stall shower at a bare minimum of 4 days a week, with two positions (split between multiple people to support peer payments) at 8 hours a day plus 3 hours weekly for trailer maintenance, at $25/hour, would cost $7,875 per month in wages. This doesn’t include the extensive amount of time that would have to go into weekly coordination, or the coordination with the City around sites, safety protocols, and their required reporting (LavaMaeX estimated coordination as one full-time position). A two-position staffing model, even just for February and March and excluding prep training on operating the trailer, overdose response, etc., would total over $15,000.
Other costs: To run a three-stall mobile shower service operating 4 days a week, LavaMaeX estimated a core budget of $1,356 per month for cleaning products, laundering towels, propane, and water; they couldn’t provide any estimate for ICBC insurance, liability insurance, maintenance of the trailer and towing vehicle, gas, or parking as these are highly geographically specific. Nic didn’t do any in-depth investigation of these costs as it was clear by this point that there was no way to make this work within the terms of the City’s grant.
The bottom line: While $100,000 seems at first glance like a significant sum of money that should be more than enough to run a mobile program for four months, the reality is that acquiring mobile shower infrastructure is very expensive. The City either did no diligence around actual costs of purchasing or operating a mobile shower unit, or deliberately set up a funding competition that was hyped as being open to grassroots teams and organizations already on the ground, but in reality was viable only for large organizations able to augment the City’s funding with other funding sources.
Realistically, it’s the big poverty industry agencies that corner a large portion of funding streams because of their official organizational status (many funding streams are only open to registered charities) and existing infrastructure (positions and wages that can be shifted to new projects, existing vehicles, ongoing funding from donations, work space, secure parking, liability insurance, administrative and fundraising infrastructure, etc). And indeed, in the end the only organization that submitted a mobile shower proposal was the Salvation Army, a mega-agency that, globally, has a long history of anti-queer and anti-trans discriminationand as a proselytizing Christian organization is not felt to be safe by many people who have experienced harm by Christian churches and missionaries. This is not an organization that prioritizes accountability to people who are unhoused; the local branch came under scrutiny in 2015 for having substandard living conditions in its shelter, and in 2020 was in conflict with outreach groups and people living outside about the way it handled its publicly-funded food distribution to people living in parks (which was abruptly discontinued by the Salvation Army after a few months of changing locations and times with minimal notice, choosing to leave their donated specialized food truck sitting idle rather than offering it to the outreach groups that were left scrambling to put together food distribution systems).
Grassroots groups and mutual aid organizing have the ability and willingness to collaborate with people sheltering outside in the design and implementation of infrastructure and programs, and are often centred around economic justice principles that mean recognizing the expertise and skill of people who are unhoused, prioritizing money for peer positions, and paying peers fair wages. But grassroots groups and mutual aid networks don’t have the same kind of financial leverage as poverty industry agencies. Even if no matching funding is required as a prerequisite for applying (as is often the case), functionally requiring matching funding means that large organizations who don’t work collaboratively with those sheltering outside are likely to be the only ones who can run a project.
Beyond the financial restrictions involved, the timeline restrictions involved in a project of this nature were also substantial.
Hurry up and wait: People living outside and the groups providing on-the-ground support have been calling for mobile showers since the COVID public health emergency reduced options in March. When the City finally responded eight months later, the amount of time between the grant announcement and deadline was 10 days. While several city councillors successfully got the deadline extended by one week at the last minute, it still proved, for most people and organizations on the ground who were already stretched thin and functioning at over-capacity, too quick and therefore unworkable to figure out a solid plan for something as complex as creating a collaborative, peer-based mobile shower program from scratch. LavaMaeX has suggested that most organizations take several months to do what the City required to happen in 10 days.
While the City expects organizations already working flat-out to hustle to meet the City’s timeframe, that’s not an expectation they hold for their own staff. Two of the three successful applicants funded through this program have not been able to begin their project one month later due to city restrictions and bureaucracy, making one question how much the City actually deems this an “Emergency”.
Unrealistic implementation timeframe & lost time due to City inaction: In its grant program description the City said grants would support programs running from December 1, 2020 until March 31, 2021. But in the process of calling mobile shower programs in ‘canada’ and all of the shower trailer production and sales companies Nic could find online, it quickly became evident that the earliest a shower trailer could make it onto ‘vancouver island’ would be mid-February 2021. This is largely because of the high demand of mobile shower trailers due to the COVID-19 pandemic, because other municipalities and organizations across the continent had been months ahead of ‘victoria’ in their decisions to pursue mobile shower trailers. Again, the City either did no diligence in creating its granting program or didn’t care that their timeline was unrealistic. Receiving a mobile shower trailer in February 2021 means 2+ months dead time until people are able to access basic hygiene services, with no interim solutions (and already-torn-down mutual aid shower stalls). There was a proposal for fixed-site showers — already constructed — that the City could also have opted to support, that could have been installed much more quickly as an interim measure.
Additionally, the grant only funds projects until the end of March 2021, which meant that for any team exploring the feasibility of a project there was only a vague guarantee of showers for, at most, 1.5 months unless organizations could come up with additional funding beyond that time. Some groups didn’t apply out of a feeling that $100,000 for 6 weeks of showers is not the best use of emergency funds.
While a mobile shower unit is something that will be needed ongoing as long as there are people living outside (even if fixed-site shower services return to pre-COVID service structures), many individuals and organizations are unable to take a project on with such uncertain funding for ongoing operation. The infrastructure is only a good investment if it comes with realistic operating timeframes and full accountability to people living outside in how it is operated.
The City pitched this project as taking care of people’s shower needs. But when you don’t ask people living in parks how they need things to be set up, it’s impossible to accurately scope an issue. Throwing out a random budget number with no sense of how well it meets needs is not a responsible approach.
As mentioned earlier, LavaMaeX estimated that a 3-stall trailer could provide 35 showers per day. The Salvation Army was funded for a 3-stall mobile shower operating five days per week — at that rate the 200+ people at all 11 different sites across the city can’t shower even once per week. If housed people were rationed down to one shower per week, even outside of a respiratory pandemic, there would be outrage.
Instead of providing an amount insufficient for even one mobile shower unit, the City could have considered offering both a mobile shower unit (which might be the most feasible approach for smaller parks) and also fixed-site showers at the larger sites where there is significant volume of people needing to shower. The community shower-builders did submit an (unsuccessful) application that could have made showers immediately available near the largest park where people are sheltering, with an option for more fixed-site showers at other locations as part of the roll-out. Fixed-site showers definitely don’t meet everyone’s needs but the immediacy of their implementation at least would have meant that people in one site had access to hot showers near where they’re living during the coldest months of the year. And it would also have relieved demand on the mobile unit, making it more feasible for people at other sites to benefit from it.
While a mobile shower unit is great in its portability, if you happen to be at the wrong site on the wrong day, or have a schedule that doesn’t align with that of the shower trailer operators, then you are still out of luck. Fixed-site showers proximate to where people are sheltering can be peer-operated during hours that are flexible and based on what people living in the park need, without the environmental and financial costs of moving the showers around the city. But colonial systems don’t consider diverse needs and have little creativity around how to meet those needs.
Witnessing first hand the ways that people sheltering outside have been treated by bylaw officers and police through the pandemic (and well before), and watching the same forces do everything in their power to restrict access to showers at MEEGAN (including turning off a water hookup and digging it out of the ground, tearing down several shower stalls, and arresting one person), it did not feel right to even consider applying for funding from the City. A City grant released in the midst of City staff aggressively dismantling a mutual-aid shower project and community care tent is insincere and largely performative. Tearing down an already functional mutual-aid shower project to create a City-controlled shower option is a paternalistic, colonial, bureaucratic power move. The City’s PR person claimed to media that the community showers were shut down because grassroots people were unwilling to work with them, but after nine months of the City being obstructive to grassroots groups working on the ground, it becomes apparent that in the City’s eyes, “working with the City” actually means doing what the City tells you to do.
Additionally, while framing this grant as open to everyone, the reality is that the City’s funding processes are completely inaccessible to people living outside who do health and social service provision all the time with little recognition or compensation. One hopeful applicant sheltering in a park only heard about the grant three hours in advance of the deadline, as the City relied heavily on email to organizations and advertising on its website — impossible for people living outside to access when the City has refused to provide electricity so people living in parks can keep mobile devices reliably charged, and drop-ins are largely closed due to COVID. Council’s discussion of applications during a webcast meeting included a decision to remove the name of the individual who was the most heavily involved in the community care tent, and who had already demonstrated an ability to successfully do a community care tent (till the City tore it down), saying that instead the money should go to the church that was the organization listed as the co-sponsor (in compliance with the City’s requirement that an organization with insurance be identified as the co-sponsor for any informal team). The City’s processes speak to the inaccessibility of funding and the ways that involvement of people who are currently unhoused or have recent experience in the street community is largely tokenized. A peer-based project submitted by an unhoused person and a housed ally was submitted but it wasn’t funded.
Seeing the ways that this grant has been administered, the ways the funding has been distributed, and the ways that the implementation of its projects has been delayed and stretched because of bureaucratic process, demonstrates the ways that this grant — while partly well-intentioned and undoubtedly meaning to support good work in community — was also inadequate, insincere, and a public-relations tactic meant to sweep the City’s misdeeds and inaction under the rug.
A MONTH AFTER THE SO-CALLED “EMERGENCY”…
After a short extension to the grant deadline, the City decided to fund three projects: $6,500 to set up a new community care tent near (but not in) the park at MEEGAN (making it functionally inaccessible to people living in the park who can’t leave their belongings to access the tent), $22,400 to the Umbrella Society for morning “wellness checks” as part of delivering 120 breakfasts to the 200-250 people living outside (the food provider making the breakfast, who also submitted an application, was not funded by the City), and $86,520 to the Salvation Army Addictions and Rehabilitation Centre to provide a mobile 3-stall shower trailer in parks five days per week until the end of March. The total comes to $115,420 but the City is asking the CRD to reimburse the $15,420 overage from its original $100,000 commitment.
A month after the grant deadline, there are still no showers in or near parks, and restricted showers elsewhere. There is still no city-built infrastructure in order to allow the City’s approved version of the community care tent. While the city tears down mutual aid projects and turns off water sources for people sheltering outside, while they drag their feet in forcing support projects through the “proper” colonial bureaucracy, hundreds of people are forced to live outside in heavy rain, winds, cold, and largely flooded fields. They continue to live without heat, without knowing if they’ll be displaced unnecessarily, without access to basic hygiene, without their human rights being respected by the City. And while it will be truly great to have a mobile shower trailer in the city in February and ongoing, it would’ve also been great if the City had worked with people living outside, and had listened and acted on a solution to the shower crisis a year ago, last March, when the struggle for showers initially began.
The following excerpt is from the story The Payphone, first published online at Lunch Ticket, and now available as an audiobook and in print at BallsOfRice.Bandcamp.com. Artwork by Alex Murray.
A man wearing a navy paisley bandana and wire-frame glasses pedaled his bike to the corner, stepped over his seat, and coasted on one foot to the bike rack at the side of the liquor store. He slotted his front wheel in the rack, strode four steps over to the unsheltered public payphone, lifted the handset, inserted a quarter, dialed the number to his daughter on the east end of town, and waited. He needed to call her Tuesday, today, to see if his cheque had arrived. His watch said 4:42 p.m.
No dial tone started, nothing, until he heard an automated woman’s voice say in her cold, impersonal way, “Credit twenty-five cents. Please deposit twenty-five cents.”
The man forgot that the phone company raised the price by one-hundred percent, to fifty cents. He patted his pants pockets, checked his jacket, checked the sidewalk, even checked the pouch attached to his bicycle, and couldn’t find a quarter. He couldn’t find two dimes and a nickel. He couldn’t find anything. There was no one around for several blocks to ask for change.
“Fuck sakes!” the man cursed. He slammed the phone against the liquor store’s brick wall, breaking the earpiece off. He dropped the receiver and biked away.
In 2002, a group of residents and advocates met at the intersection of Main and Hastings in Vancouver holding a 100-foot-long hypodermic needle made out of a giant cardboard tube, stopping traffic. They were protesting the forced closing of a needle exchange on the corner of Main and Hastings in the Downtown Eastside. Earlier, in 2001, front-line workers had distributed clean needles in a trailer outfitted with washrooms, and ensured those using in bathroom stalls didn’t overdose. Affectionately known as “the Thunder Box,” the trailer became one of North America’s first unsanctioned supervised injection sites.
These stories are among countless actions detailed in Travis Lupick’s Fighting for Space, which tells of the struggle that led to the implementation of Canada’s first official safe-injection site in Vancouver in 2003. The history of the harm reduction movement is one of direct action and protest – an “act first, ask second” attitude that was the only reasonable response to an outbreak of preventable disease and a crisis of premature deaths. Lupick focuses on the Portland Hotel Society (PHS), the groundbreaking housing non-profit that offered low-barrier housing to the city’s most vulnerable, and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), the advocacy group that pushed for accessible health care and decriminalization of drug use. The two worked in tandem, with VANDU often willingly taking the heat for direct actions to protect the more diplomatic and funding-restricted Portland Hotel Society.
The history of the harm reduction movement is one of direct action and protest – an “act first, ask second” attitude.
The 1990s saw a dramatic spike in overdose deaths and high rates of HIV diagnoses in Vancouver – not unlike the current fentanyl crisis playing out across Canada. But this time the human cost is much higher, with 2017 being the deadliest year on record for overdose deaths in B.C. The strategies used by advocates on the West Coast, honed over decades of persistent work, can provide guidance for similar struggles being newly waged in neighbouring Prairie provinces like Saskatchewan, where fentanyl has killed over 40 people since 2015.
While revealing the staggering numbers of diagnoses and deaths is key to understanding the scope of the problem, it is the stories of the people who’ve lived through the harm reduction movement that makes this history real. By telling the accounts of people struggling for dignity against politicians and a public determined to dehumanize them, Lupick reinforces two basic claims of the harm reduction movement: people who use drugs are human, and all people deserve safety and health.
In one of their first organized meetings, members of the newly formed VANDU agreed that they wanted somewhere safe and healthy to spend time, a space that was free of police harassment. The Portland Hotel Society’s first residence was known as the “Hotel of Last Resort.” Simplifying their message to one of “health and safety” – one that politicians and the public couldn’t reasonably reject – has grounded all of their actions and successes in the harm reduction movement. Lupick concludes the book with an epilogue about a family — Mary, Molly, and Mikel — in a quietly triumphant story of three generations living in the Portland Hotel Society, all experiencing stability in their health and housing.
Lupick reinforces two basic claims of the harm reduction movement: people who use drugs are human, and all people deserve safety and health.
Lupick does not deify Vancouver’s advocates or their process – rather, he shows them to be people offering the simple necessities of safety and support, while working toward inclusive public health policy. He demonstrates a proven way to effectively build low-barrier health care and housing systems: through persistent action coupled with advocacy, and building partnerships with sympathetic policy-makers. Without this infrastructure, the number of overdose deaths in B.C. last year would have been much higher.
When harm reduction programs are routinely among the first to be threatened, the work being done by those of the front lines is delegitimized and destabilized.
For years, doctors, front-line workers, and advocates in Saskatchewan have been pushing for the province to declare a state of emergency regarding rising HIV rates. But if we continue to wait for a provincial government to take necessary action – especially as two newly elected party leaders wade in slowly, in a province where the health of First Nations people is systematically neglected — it may never happen. Prairie activists and front-line workers struggling through those bureaucracies must instead act upon their values and conscience to build systems of equitable health care and human services, regardless of whether they have been granted permission by the state.
“Perhaps, as we say in America, I wanted to find myself. This is an interesting phrase, not current as far as I know in the language of any other people, which certainly does not mean what it says but betrays a nagging suspicion that something has been misplaced. I think now that if I had any intimation that the self I was going to find would turn out to be only the same self from which I had spent so much time in flight, I would have stayed at home.”
Simply put, many Americans have become redundant in an economy rigged to serve the biggest banks and corporations. With no one hiring us and our small businesses bankrupted by the behemoths, many of us are forced to beg, peddle, push or steal, though on a scale that’s minuscule compared to what’s practiced by our ruling thugs. As we shove dented cans of irradiated sardines into our Dollar Store underwear, they rob us of our past, present and future.
-Linh Dinh, Postcards from the End of America, Lower-Class Upper Manhattan, p180
All Quiet On The Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque