Canadian Housing Leader Retires as Violence Against Homeless People Increases

Homelessness in British Columbia

Credit Image: © Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

The CEO of one of Canada’s largest public housing providers announced his retirement on August 2 following several violent incidents targeting people experiencing homelessness in British Columbia.

Shayne Ramsay, the CEO of BC Housing, said in his retirement announcement that the violence against homeless people and himself has left him feeling like he can no longer “solve the complex problems facing us at BC Housing.”

Ramsay’s last day at BC Housing will be on September 6.

“These incidents are not isolated, nor are they the only incidents that have caused me to lay awake at night,” Ramsay said. “From the Interior to the West Side, doubtless small but vocal groups of people are increasingly angry and increasingly volatile.”

Ramsay mentioned several recent incidents that caused a “shift” in his desire to lead BC Housing, including the fatal stabbing at Crab Park beach outside Vancouver in May. Ramsay said he witnessed the aftermath of the incident after he finished walking his dog that morning.

Then, Ramsay mentioned an incident on July 27 where a homeless woman was set on fire in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Local police told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that the woman survived the attack but suffered “serious burns.”

Threats of violence against homeless people in Vancouver have increased since July.

Police told CBC that they are also investigating the distribution of flyers threatening to burn homeless people’s tents and incinerate Incite, a local supervised injection site. 

Ramsay also mentioned an incident in late July where he was accosted and “threatened with physical violence” after a public hearing about the Arbutus social housing project. He added that city security told him the incident amounted to “assault” after Ramsay was “swarmed” by a crowd, some of whom threatened to punch Ramsay.

“This time, it was angry words and a fist; next time, it could be worse,” Ramsay said. “While one community faces the almost certain prospect of poverty, poor health, violence, and premature death, others are now unwilling to provide a welcoming space, a space that could save lives.”

Violence against people experiencing homelessness is not a new phenomenon, but it has gotten more attention since the pandemic began in March 2020.

Outside of threats of physical violence, one form of violence that homeless people commonly face is homeless sweeps. The ACLU of Washington describes homeless sweeps in a legal primer as “the forced disbanding of homeless encampments on public property and the removal of both homeless individuals and their property from that area.”

Advocates and outreach workers at the Echo Park Lake Research Collective in Los Angeles, California, found that homeless sweeps can have devastating effects on local homeless communities. For example, a report compiled by the Collective in March found that just 17 of the 183 residents at the Echo Park Lake encampment received housing after the sweep. That is despite officials saying that all individuals would be placed in “stable, affordable housing” within a year of the sweep.

The report also found that 82 people “disappeared” from the Los Angeles homeless service network. Fifteen people had returned to living on the streets.

According to researchers at Northwestern University, homeless people are also consistently dehumanized in the media, which can perpetuate incidences of intergroup violence. One study from March 2020 found that the primary reason that dehumanization increases intergroup violence is that it erodes the idea that certain people are “human.”

“To strip away or overlook others’ humanity, then, is to mark them as ‘other’ and, typically, ‘less than’,” the study concludes.

There are numerous examples of media outlets dehumanizing homeless people as well.

For instance, think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Manhattan Institute have consistently described homelessness as a pathology that must be addressed through increased criminalization.

Even internet personalities like Joe Rogan have jumped on the bandwagon. On a July 14 episode of The Joe Rogan Experience with guest Tom Segura, Rogan described a Los Angeles law that protects the property rights of homeless people as a violent crime against property owners.

Segura said that local police would arrest someone for trying to remove a homeless encampment under the law. That prompted Rogan to say, “Maybe you should just go shoot the homeless people,” with Segura responding, “I like your ideas.”

Theo Henderson, an unhoused Angeleno who operates the We The Unhoused newsletter and podcast, told Variety that Rogan’s comments were “repulsive.”

“It’s infuriating because it’s not only out of touch, but the reality is that unhoused people are targeted by housed people,” Henderson said. “To advocate trying to shoot at unhoused people or just giving these dog whistles to people that do not see unhoused people as human beings — I can’t believe you’d advocate for it.”

How You Can Help

Violence against homeless people is rising around the world. Not only are homeless people subject to threats of physical violence, but they are also dehumanized in the media, thereby instigating future threats.

That’s why we need you to contact your local lawmakers. Tell them to provide more protection for your community’s most vulnerable residents. Tell them you also support building more safe, affordable housing to help homeless people escape the violence of homelessness altogether.

Robert Davis

Robert Davis

Robert is a freelance journalist based in Colorado who covers housing, police, and local government.

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