OP/ED: Chilliwack City Hall Behind Shutdown of City’s Only Overdose Prevention Site
Unceded Skowkale, Ts’elxwéyeqw, Skwah territory (Chilliwack): Erica Thomson has been barricaded in the office of the Chilliwack Union of Drug Users (CUDU) for five days. She is the president of the BC Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors, which sponsors the year-old Chilliwack group and helps fund their office space. Erica and a rotating group of CUDU members have been occupying and defending the space from the threat of a sudden, illegal eviction threatened by new landlords that took possession of the building at the end of March.
The CUDU office has been a crucial hub for the large low-income drug user community in Chilliwack since opening just over a year ago. Two doors down from the CUDU office is the 48-bed Portal shelter run by Ruth and Naomi’s Mission, a local Christian service organization, that the City has ordered closed by June 1. Erica says she thinks the closure of the CUDU space and the Portal Shelter are a result of the Downtown Chilliwack Business Improvement Association’s anti-poor, anti-drug user designs for the area.
But the forces that are conspiring to socially cleanse Chilliwack of low-income people go beyond the local BIA. The informal coalition collaborating to drive out the poor includes the Chilliwack City Council and civic administration under Mayor Ken Popove, the Chilliwack RCMP, and landlords, business, property owners and real estate investors. Together, this coalition of Chilliwack’s propertied and powerful have concocted a toxic, hateful atmosphere through anti-poor media coverage, populist politician posturing, and police and bylaw harassment that allows low-income people nowhere to rest.
It is against this climate of hate and the coalition of Chilliwack’s most powerful that the Chilliwack Union of Drug Users is fighting back.
City Council and local media team up against Chilliwack’s low-income community
At a City Council meeting on April 6, Mayor Popove’s Council turned down an application from the Portal shelter operators for an 18 month extension of the shelter’s temporary use permit. The application unleashed a barrage of anti-drug user hate from city councillors, and more than 100 complaint letters from business and property owners that council received opposing the shelter.
As reported in Chilliwack Progress, Councillor Sue Knott complained of seeing ambulances and people without Covid-19 masks on the sidewalk outside the shelter, stigmatizing their “behaviour,” by which she meant their physical presence in public, as “violent and erratic.” BC’s Provincial Health Order does not mandate the wearing of masks outside on sidewalks.
Councillor Jeff Shields called the neighbourhood around the shelter a “war zone,” and Councillor Jason Lum said, “I want this to be the last shelter the City of Chilliwack ever approves.” The Progress article reports Mayor Popove agreed “that was the wish of everyone around the council table, and beyond as well.” The Progress article did not include a single quote from a resident or supporter of the shelter’s application.
The consensus between the interests looped into this coalition is that any spaces that caters to unhoused people or those visibly stigmatized as low-income drug users should be made unwelcome in the downtown core. Popove’s Council is calling for the shelter to be moved out beyond the edge of town, to the Travelodge near the freeway – a 45 minute walk from the current location of the shelter and CUDU office in downtown Chilliwack.
What right wing media reports and City Hall populists left out, as they readied their pitchforks and flaming torches to march on the dens of iniquity on Old Yale Road, was who benefits from the expulsion of low income people from downtown Chilliwack.
The recent purchase of the CUDU office is a sign of the coming gentrification of Chilliwack – a major exurb, situated beyond the limits of Metro Vancouver, the easternmost large city in the Fraser Valley.
Gentrification comes to Chilliwack
The new owner is Ozone Homes, a Surrey-based real estate investment and management company that owns about 100 commercial and residential units throughout the lower mainland. They have demolished and rebuilt about 15 of those units, according to Gary Purewal, the president of a renovation wing of Ozone called Timberlake Sales. But most of Ozone’s properties are longer term investments.
The CUDU office building is one of those investment properties. When I reached him on the phone Purewal explained their logic to me, “In this case, the building is old and rundown but it’s in the downtown core. So we’re wanting to hold onto it for 5-10 years and then develop a housing building there.”
This sort of real estate investor’s gamble is referred to by urban geographers as taking advantage of a “rent gap” – the difference between the potential price of a property and the existing old building devalued by its age, disrepair, and the social stigma of residents or neighbours who are low-income, racialized, unhoused, or drug users. A savvy investor can buy a property that is devalued by such exigent factors, and then upscale the property by evicting and displacing the undesirable people who are keeping the price down, and then demolishing or renovating the building. With the price depressant removed, the market value of the property shoots up beyond the sort of threshold a developer may get for just renovating or redeveloping a building without such a rent gap.
This is how gentrification, the social cleansing and market revitalization of a property or neighbourhood, pays.
City uses fines to speed up development
But the City of Chilliwack and its downtown Business Improvement Association appear even more anxious than Ozone Homes to drive the poor out of the neighbourhood and get on with the redevelopment. Purewal complained, “Since we bought the building in April we have already gotten 15-20 complaints from the city and police. We are getting a lot of pressure from the city and the police to have the building cleaned out. I’m getting calls from the neighbours daily. Since the day we bought the place.” He said the complaints started on day one because the real estate agent gave his phone number to surrounding businesses.
The more urgent pressure on Ozone to displace the Chilliwack Union of Drug Users is coming from the City itself. Purewal says he has been getting calls from the City Bylaw office daily, specifically from Steve McCarthy, who is in charge of the downtown core. Purewal said, “The previous landlord was an 84 year old lady who wasn’t understanding what was happening there. She paid more than $20,000 in fines to the city.” And now Chilliwack is threatening Ozone with still more fines. Purewal says, “If I don’t do something about it I will be fined $500 daily.”
This is not to suggest that Ozone would let CUDU’s office stay if not for city pressure. Purewal was outraged that “you can see 30 people sitting in there using drugs late into the night.” He said, “We just kicked 30 people out of a neighbouring unit who were sleeping in there. They broke in.”
Erica Thomson said the CUDU office has been inspected by bylaw and property use inspectors and has passed every inspection. She said she had heard a lot of this kind of anti-drug user language from Purewal in her interactions with him. “The new landlord said we don’t owe you anything, you’re lowlifes, drug users, dealers,” she said. “When I tried to explain the drug poisoning crisis to him, he said I don’t care, I hope you all die.”
Losing the CUDU office means losing more lives
Thomson says the CUDU office is essential to the Chilliwack drug user community precisely because of the discrimination and hate that people experience practically everywhere else. CUDU is a sanctuary from that hate, and also a place for drug users to organize and fight back, including and especially against the drug poisoning crisis that has killed more than 500 people in BC so far in 2021.
Thomson said, “The only other place you can use in Chilliwack is in the Portal, but to use there you have to be registered as a shelter resident. And it’s just a picnic table under a tarp, it’s more like a smoking section.” She said that when people go to the shelter to use, staff kick them out.
The CUDU office is different. CUDU is a member-run organization, not a regular social service agency, so the people who run the space know what the community needs. Thomson said CUDU has really invested in renovating and designing the space. “We have set up a really great ventilation system for drug use; a guy did it who set up grow shows for years and he really knew what he was doing. We put in a shower for members to use.”
She said CUDU’s vision is to set up the office following the model of marijuana Compassion Clubs, “so that there is a way to access a safe supply of drugs here – where you know what the effect will be of the different drugs available.” She said CUDU has been working on setting up a line on “good quality black tar heroin, tested, making sure it doesn’t have benzos in it.” Benzodiazepines have been a more recent contaminant in opiate poisoning episodes in the lower mainland, and they are particularly dangerous because they are resistant to naloxone, the serum that helps reverse opioid overdoses.
Thomson said CUDU has learned some lessons in its first year about what it takes to operate a drug user centre and that there’s a lot of excitement for what lies ahead. Members of CUDU have learned that the volunteer jobs in the office are “a description of the responsibility you take, not a power difference over others in the community.” Losing the CUDU office will interrupt that learning process, and the development of drug users’ community power in Chilliwack.
Breaking up drug user organizing and drug users’ safer spaces is likely the point of the City’s redevelopment drive, no matter the lives it will cost. Thomson says that when the city closed down the CUDU office for a weekend in March for a property use inspection, there were 13 overdoses in two days. “We have not had one overdose death since we have opened,” Thomson said. “If they close us down I am absolutely sure our people are going to die. The consequence is that people will die.”
In the short term, all that CUDU is asking for from Ozone Homes, in order to end their barricaded occupation, is to let them stay in the building until May 15. Thomson said she tried to show the new landlords documents showing they have that right because they paid the first and last month’s rent when they moved in. But in response, “the new owner called us liars. They refused to even look at the documents.”
From the City of Chilliwack, CUDU is demanding that they stop their harassing displacement drive against drug users and other low-income people in the street community. Thomson said, “We can pay rent. We just need a decent place with landlords that understand what we’re doing.” CUDU is demanding that the City and Fraser Health move them into a new office space in the downtown area, or else Chilliwack will be without a safe consumption site, and that could be catastrophic.
Purewal, meanwhile, says that he is applying for an order of possession to displace Chilliwack’s only overdose prevention site as quickly as possible.