When an RCMP officer approached a man living in a single tent in Broadview Park in Burnaby in October, no one expected the scene to turn deadly. But the attempted eviction went awry when the officer involved was killed, and the person who was living in the tent was wounded. 

The violence of that morning came three days after pro-police candidates swept Vancouver’s municipal election, bringing questions about police involvement in the crisis of homelessness—along with paltry social services and astronomical rents—to the fore. 

As welfare-rate housing goes up in flames and tent cities are uprooted, Vancouver’s newly elected municipal government is a success story for police, and could provide a model for how police engage with future elections across Canada. 

As registered social workers in the Lower Mainland, we know that policing the housing crisis—or any crisis of inequality—fails to provide positive outcomes. To resolve these issues, we must acknowledge the violent institutions that perpetuate inequality, including the police.

From our perspective, we see an urgent need to defund police forces and invest in real safety—and to redirect massive investments in infrastructure such as social housing, a regulated drug supply, and peer-led crisis response.

Anti-homeless violence is normalized

Displacement of unhoused individuals receives substantial media coverage within Vancouver city limits, including ongoing encampments on Hastings Street and at CRAB Park. In other B.C. municipalities, there’s less media attention when unhoused neighbours are subjected to the churn of homelessness, which is enforced collectively by police, bylaw and parks staff, and/or private security.

The City of Burnaby borders Vancouver, but there are no formal or informal tent cities there. This means there is nowhere for those who are unable to access housing to legally exist 24/7. People who shelter in parks, ravines, or other informal settlements are uprooted at the whim of whoever is tasked with enforcement on a particular day. 

Burnaby’s Housing + Homelessness strategy, approved in 2021, envisions a city where “homelessness is brief, rare, and one time.” But resident Jongwon Ham reportedly lived in a park there for years. This was until Oct. 18, when RCMP Const. Shaelyn (Tzu-Hsin) Yang approached his solitary tent in preparation to serve “an eviction notice,” per a leaked police report.

The sequence of events that unfolded on the morning of Yang’s tragic death and the shooting of Ham remain unclear, and the investigation is ongoing. 

Ham has been charged with first-degree murder for allegedly stabbing Yang, and the investigation into the shooting, which he survived, remains open. The Independent Investigations Office of BC said it is “investigating a police-involved shooting incident in Burnaby which resulted in serious injuries to one person and the death of an officer.”

This incident took place in a year that marked a 15-year high for Vancouver police firing their weapons, leading to multiple police homicides. In August, the death of Ojibwe man Chris Amyotte following an altercation with the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) sparked national outcry from Indigenous leaders. A few weeks later, a disturbing video appearing to show VPD officers driving their vehicle into a community member on Hastings Street circulated online. The victim survived with serious injuries, but had no safe place to recover.

Photo: Tyson Singh Kelsall

A fire under affordable housing

Since April, multiple major fires have impacted single room occupancy hotels (SROs), the cheapest rental housing stock in Vancouver. Multiple Downtown Eastside SROs burnt down this year, including the Winters Hotel, Princess Rooms, and most recently Keefer Rooms, which left dozens of people without shelter.

People on the street or in parks routinely tell us they would rather be outside than living in housing they consider dangerous and substandard.

Their fears are well founded, and include concerns for the safety of Indigenous women and girls, hygiene issues and pest infestations, as well as structural inadequacies in the buildings. ‘Supportive housing’ providers of these SROs utilize strategies to subvert basic tenancy rights, adding to the precarity, although this has been successfully challenged in court.

Average rental costs are soaring across Metro Vancouver, making much of the rental market inaccessible to an increasing share of the population. Rental listing analyses show that an average one-bedroom apartment now costs $2,256 a month. 

Meanwhile, B.C. income assistance and permanent disability rates continue to provide just $375 toward shelter every month. The provincial government has not restored temporary COVID-19 benefits for people on assistance—which it introduced in 2020, and then cancelled nine months later. For its part, the federal government effectively ended its low-barrier Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) shortly before. 

In 2019, Pivot Legal Society released Project Inclusion, which reports on the commonalities shared by people experiencing homelessness across B.C. This report describes the cyclical criminalization that unhoused people are subject to, and notes “for people experiencing poverty, homelessness, or unemployment, the stigma associated with having a police record can create a vicious cycle that further ensnares them in poverty.” 

In recent years, tent cities have been dismantled through coordinated efforts by multiple levels of government, not just in Metro Vancouver municipalities like Maple Ridge, but also in cities including Saanich, Abbotsford, and Nanaimo. 

Alongside anti-homeless bylaw enforcement, the criminal justice system banishes unhoused community members from specific locales via the use of geographic restrictions commonly known as red zones or no-go’s, and behavioural conditions

Behavioural conditions control people’s everyday activity, but often fail to reflect how the intersections of poverty, substance use, mental health, disability, and racism shape people’s lives and daily activities. For some clients, this means not being allowed to be within 50 metres of a car. Others are forbidden from going near certain stores. At times, red zones overlap with areas where health and social services are concentrated, restricting people’s ability to access support and care. 

Throughout B.C., and in communities across Canada, anti-homeless bylaws operate in tandem with red-zones and behavioural conditions, criminalizing people’s everyday survival. These destabilizing practices come at a tremendous cost—of trauma, deteriorating health, intergenerational disenfranchisement, and of course, the dollars and cents of the criminal (in)justice system. 

Photo: Meenakshi Mannoe

Billions to Vancouver police

Amidst the human rights and public health emergencies that shape survival of people experiencing state-manufactured poverty and houselessness, Vancouver’s incoming mayor was elected on a promise to hire 100 new police officers

Over the past three years, the VPD budget has totalled well over $1 billion dollars—its operating costs currently cost the city a million dollars a day—making up more than 20 percent of the city’s budget. 

Of course, there are also separate police budgets for the bordering municipalities including Burnaby and Surrey, as well as funds for regional transit police or Canadian Border Services Agency. Hiring 100 VPD full-time officers would cost at least $10 million per year, but Mayor Ken Sim, a chartered accountant by trade, has remained notably silent on his implementation plan. 

In 2020, amidst the George Floyd rebellion and uprisings in solidarity with Black & Indigenous people killed by police, we were among 135 local frontline workers who requested Vancouver city council slash the VPD budget by $152 million. We argued that the city could re-allocate the funds toward appropriate alternatives to respond to intersecting crises.

Months later, Vancouver’s council attempted to freeze the VPD budget, but the province overturned its decision. The city was forced to meet the department’s demand for a $5.7-million increase. The decision to overturn the city’s budget maneuver was ultimately made by the Director of Police Services, a former RCMP officer, whose policing career spanned more than 30 years.

For his part, Burnaby Mayor Mike Hurley defended a significant police budget increase during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hurley regularly decries the lack of housing and mental health support from the province, but he stops short of prioritizing appropriate interventions to address these issues.

Vancouver’s ABC, a win for police 

On Oct. 5, the Vancouver Police Union broke with tradition and democratic norms to endorse a political party, ABC Vancouver. The ABC-police coalition went on to win a majority in the municipal election. 

ABC Mayor-elect Ken Sim campaigned almost exclusively on the promise to hire new cops and mental health nurses, something Sim has been unclear about since being elected. The initial motion indicates that funding will see the city hand the VPD another $4.5 million outside of their regular budget discussions.

ABC ran former VPD spokesperson Brian Montague for council. Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung, who is married to a VPD officer, has stated that her perspective on the police budget is partly informed by her partner’s experience. Christopher Richardson, the longest serving VPD officer in the city, was elected to the school board under the ABC banner, promising to reinstate the controversial school liaison officer program. ABC has since removed Richardson from the party after finding out that multiple organizations had their charitable status revoked under his leadership. 

The extent of police and police-adjacent participation in Vancouver’s election could become a model for their participation in local elections elsewhere. In Victoria, the police union president has expressed the need for police to shape municipal election narratives. 

Brian Sauvé, President of the National Police Federation (which represents regular RCMP members and reservists) has discussed the need for police to actively sell their value to the public “and maintain support” for officers in schools. 

Sauvé previously justified death at the hands of RCMP officers during an open investigation, when he released a victim-blaming statement shortly after Campbell River RCMP killed Wet’suwet’en man Jared Lowndes in July 2020. 

Photo: Meenakshi Mannoe

Shoring up police narratives

As evidence mounts that policing is not the answer to issues of harm and safety in Metro Vancouver, police organizations are collectively investing their taxpayer-funded resources into communication strategies that conflate issues related to inequality and housing precarity with lawlessness, congruent with the disproven broken windows theory of policing.

Before the elections, the VPD commissioned a $150,000 report by Helpseeker, which used cartoonishly inflated financial totals to position the organization as underfunded within the broader social safety net. 

Helpseeker, a consulting firm, had previously been commissioned by the Edmonton Police Service (EPS). As first reported by PressProgress, in a presentation on the report’s finding, EPS chief Dale McFee mused that police should be removed from the justice department and merged with public health.

In early November, representatives of the Vancouver Police Union and Police Board met with Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, who tweeted appreciatively about the opportunity to “make our big city streets safe again, by backing our police.” 

Also in the lead up to Vancouver’s election, the VPD collaborated with right-wing YouTuber Aaron Gunn, a former spokesperson for BC Proud, in a video funded by the Pacific Prosperity Network, a group funded and promoted by far-right billionaire Chip Wilson. 

Gunn is known for producing videos about his fear of human rights tribunals and for claiming Canada does not “have racist laws, we don’t have racist institutions.” He was removed from the BC Liberal leadership race for being a “far right extremist.”

Vancouver Police Union president Ralph Kaisers collaborated extensively on the video, appearing as a key interview subject. Police appear throughout the video, in which interviewees make repeated spurious claims about the encampment without pushback, including that 90 percent of homelessness in Vancouver is due to drug use, that the probability of being randomly assaulted within city limits is 1 in 4, and rebranding now banned practice of racist VPD street checks as “stopping and talking to someone on the street.” 

In the video, Gunn suggests that walking in the DTES, something we do most days without issue, is too dangerous to do without a police escort. He claims the VPD provided escort services for the filming, despite VPD booking request guidelines stating they deny such requests. The VPD refused to comment about their involvement in the filming.

Photo: Meenakshi Mannoe

Real safety for poor and unhoused people

As social workers in Vancouver, we have outreached to dozens of people living in tents at Oppenheimer, Strathcona, and CRAB Parks, the Hastings Street Tent City, and the alleys in between. We have never armed ourselves to go to work. We are not strangers to the realities of violence in these communities, and the utter lack of resources available to survivors on the street. 

But we know that in many situations, police involvement accelerates rather than prevents violence. B.C.’s systems of social and health care remain far from perfect and are certainly not beyond reproach, but emerging research shows police interactions can breed distrust toward state institutions beyond the criminal justice system. 

We see how the lives of unhoused people living in visible spaces are “overdetermined by the law.” Bylaws prohibit individuals from sheltering in public spaces, and police programs such as the Trespass Prevention Program are used to further banish people from sheltering under awnings or covered spaces. The legal system is deployed as a weapon against unhoused people, rather than a tool to find solutions. The impacts of incarceration can further aggravate housing instability. Jongwon Ham is not an exception to this norm: he had numerous VPD encounters, beginning in early 2021.

Police involvement in outreach work—sometimes called “layered policing”—can trigger past trauma for those who have had a negative history with the legal system or with individual patrol officers. Bringing police into outreach work undermines the potential to develop therapeutic and just relationships with clients and communities we work alongside. 

An evidence-based consensus is growing on removing police from ‘wellness checks,’ and the largest psychiatric hospital in Canada has called for police removal from the frontlines. In addition, people have shared their own experiences of police representing acute harm and danger through the lens of active psychosis. To us, it is clear that wellness checks and outreach work should not be structurally linked to criminalization. 

The understanding that police should not be involved with outreach work has not reached the VPD-ABC coalition media team. Liaison Sgt. Steve Addison and Ken Sim’s chief of staff, Kareem Allam have weaponized Shaelyn Yang’s death to frame mental health work as dangerous. 

What they neglect to mention is that policing itself was a present dynamic in the fatal incident.

Our experience has taught us that tackling issues facing tent cities directly, rather than relying on policing, will result in better outcomes for individuals and communities.

The violence of police-involved deaths cannot be separated from the broader context of the criminalization of poverty, the cruel systems that penalize people who rely on public space, and the urgent need to defund police forces and invest in real safety

Real safety for those who are forced to live in temporary structures and informal settlements means massive public investments in infrastructure such as dignified social housing, a regulated drug supply, and peer-led crisis response.

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