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Bernie Pauly: Unintended consequences of housing policy

Eleven tenants from the supportive-housing facility at 844 Johnson St. have won their case about having guests.

Eleven tenants from the supportive-housing facility at 844 Johnson St. have won their case about having guests. An arbitrator sided with residents who said the guest policies discriminated against low-income people, unreasonably restricted entry of guests, and violated the privacy of their friends and family.

In response, there have been calls to further restrict guests, but increasing surveillance and restrictive guest policies contribute to isolation, further the harms of poverty and substance use, and put people at increasing risk of poor health and overdose deaths.

Healthy and safe living spaces are an important determinant of health. Super Intent City residents, in their successful bid to stop displacement by the province, highlighted their lack of access to affordable housing and pointed to restrictive rules in supportive housing, such as the ability to invite family and friends to visit, have a pet or live with a partner. These are freedoms many of us take for granted as part of housing and home.

An analysis of 434 print-media articles from 18 regional and national newspapers shows that tent-city residents, when asked, repeatedly emphasized the importance of healthy and safe living spaces, as well as a sense of community and belonging, as important to their health and well-being.

Their voices were often masked by a focus on criminalization, as opposed to a focus on the conditions in which people who are homeless are forced to live.

Increasing surveillance in supportive housing contributes to ongoing criminalization. It fails to recognize that people with experiences of homelessness, substance use and mental-health problems are more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators of crime.

People experiencing homelessness live in the public eye and face criminalization daily in the absence of healthy living spaces, affecting their mental health and well-being and influencing their actions and responses.

Criminalization distracts us from addressing the socio-economic conditions that have created homelessness and a cycle of criminalization and stereotypes.

Restrictive guest policies and surveillance can run counter to health-related goals of preventing overdose deaths. Public-health messages remind people not to use alone and to access overdose-prevention services.

In a recent analysis by the B.C. coroner, most illicit-drug-overdose deaths were in indoor spaces, including housing.

B.C. is in the grips of a public-health emergency. Overdoses are responsible for more deaths than vehicle crashes, killing about four people a day. A climate of surveillance that includes restrictive guest policies creates distrust and conditions in which people end up using alone.

After years of research and advocacy, raising awareness about the extreme lack of available and affordable housing in our community, we are seeing significant and important investments in supportive housing that are outlined in the Capital Regional District Housing First Plan. According to “housing first” best practices, people should be offered housing first and supports second.

Supports are not offered as “one size fits all,” but take into account the needs and experiences of each resident.

Restrictive policies meant to promote safety, when applied universally, often work in ways not intended. In the case of guest policies, opportunities for community-building and family and social reconnection, which are important to healing and recovery, can be inhibited.

A commitment to social inclusion is central to the CRD’s housing plan. Best practices in the field of homelessness and substance use have repeatedly emphasized the importance of including people with lived experience in the development of policies and programs.

That results in better programming, self-esteem and improved self-determination – all important factors in health and well-being. In our research, I have repeatedly seen how including people with experience in decision-making results in better rules and processes that promote safety and recovery for all.

Restrictive social-housing policies work against commitments to social inclusion and recovery, with negative impacts on health and well-being.

We need to encourage the development of housing where residents experience dignity and respect, where they are part of decision-making, where they are given a chance to feel accountable and responsible, and to have opportunities for building community and reconnection with family and friends.

Supportive housing does not live up to its commitment of support in an environment that puts surveillance and control ahead of social inclusion and collaboration.

Given the important work ahead as we implement Housing First, we need to enhance social-inclusion polices and practices that promote health, safety and recovery rather than err on an overreliance on security measures.


Bernie Pauly is an associate professor in the School of Nursing at the University of Victoria and a scientist with the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C.

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