Reprinted from "Housing: Discrimination and Inclusion" issue of Visions Journal, 2015, 10 (3), p. 15
For the past 12 years, I’ve been forced to live in housing at a location I did not choose. I have no choice because the amount of my disability income ($325/month) does not allow me any choice.
When I first moved into this housing complex (about 100 units), I was surrounded by people much older than myself. I was 49 and didn’t fit in with the people 65 and older. The only tie I had to any of them was that I’m a veteran, of the Vietnam War, and they were mostly WWII vets. There was only one other younger tenant, who had a disability, but was never around.
The building, which has all bachelor units, was veteran-friendly and is now single-mother-and seniors-friendly. The single mothers’ children have grown, so the women can’t keep the larger housing units they’ve had elsewhere. Age difference is not so much an issue now, but there are maybe five tenants with a disability—hard to know exactly, as this is a privacy issue—so we’re still a minority.
There are no support workers or care for tenants. It’s strictly subsidized housing, managed by a non-profit society headquartered in Vancouver. There is a full-time caretaker onsite, and a supervisor who shows up at the property part-time. There is no staff trained to handle tenant disputes or grievances.
Part I: Housing policy discrimination
The older tenants have a choice of living in the housing or not. That’s because they can get support to rent in private housing through Shelter Aid for Elderly Renters (SAFER).
The younger, disabled person doesn’t have the same choice. If they don’t end up on the street, they often end up in some awful single room occupancy (SRO) hotel downtown, being victimized by staff and other tenants. I lived in one for a month when I first came to BC. It’s a nightmare. The stress causes health issues and even death for some.
If people with disabilities are not given enough income to choose where they live, I believe it will cost the taxpayer more when they end up in hospital.
All that’s needed is to give disabled people the same choice as a senior has when it comes to housing. If a disabled person who needs it was able to get support like SAFER, it could change that person’s life.
Just plain unsuitable
There’s one thing for sure: disabled young and middle-aged people should not be boarded with seniors who have lost hope that anything will ever be any better.
It’s also not healthy for a disabled person to be put into housing with people who are all in the same boat you’re in. You’re no longer with people who are functioning, but surrounded by people who aren’t functioning. And you can’t ask other tenants for help, because they’re worse off than, or at least as bad as, you are. It’s a trap you end up in, which eventually takes away hope.
Another thing is, you’re not really part of the community. Prior to moving here, I lived with my brother in North Vancouver in a regular apartment building. I felt more alive. I saw people as they should be: working, making their way through life. Here, you’re in housing that takes you away from people who still function with a ‘normal’ life. It takes away the desire to function in the best way you can.
I built homes and repaired cars when I could work. But eventually I became depressed—and not from my disability, but from what my situation had become. When you live only around others who don’t work or are depressed, you become the same. It’s kind of like putting a person who commits a minor crime in with bank robbers and murderers. It doesn’t matter how much will power you have, you will be dragged down. I have ended up in the hospital from it.
Part II: Kicking you when you’re down
I have spent the past 15 years fighting rheumatoid arthritis—it has been a hell of a struggle, trying all kinds of medications to try and deal with the crippling pain that never ends. I was in the US Marine Corps, so I’m no wimp. But arthritis meds haven’t worked and narcotics for the pain are inadequate, and there’s only so much you do with your mind...
And now I am fighting for a place to live. In the past five years, I have been harassed by staff and other tenants. They know your only other choice is the street. I’ve filed complaints with the Residential Tenancy Branch twice in the past few years.
I’ve done nothing wrong, but one staff person—the supervisor, a retired cop who started in the position six years ago—took it upon himself to harass me in hopes it will drive me out of the building; perhaps even out of the non-profit agency’s housing. He has repeatedly threatened to evict me. Yet, no one has ever come to me and said turn your TV down or don’t do this or that—because I’ve not broken any tenancy rules.
This supervisor is one of the most discriminatory people I’ve met in years and I’ve seen some bad ones. (I was in the US Marines during the Vietnam War. Though Canadian, I was raised in the US and at 17 thought I wanted to be a career soldier. The racism, against Black and Hispanic soldiers was horrible. After just three years, I left military service and returned to Canada in hopes of being free of it). And this is what I’m dealing with now.
I had to take the building managers to the Residential Tenancy Branch for dispute resolution because I was being harassed by a tenant below who was banging on hot water pipes, and I just wanted to get some peace. The supervisor wouldn’t do anything about it, nor would the non-profit’s management—I am just some disabled person and the supervisor was a cop.
I’ve also been bullied by another tenant. I get the finger and the ‘evil eye,’ and have had three verbal death threats.
I have gone through feeling ashamed because I’m disabled and feel completely alone in it all. It’s clear that some people, when they don’t understand your disability or can’t see why you’re disabled, assume you’re faking being disabled. Healthy people harassing a disabled person—it’s like a young person picking a fight with a senior. But I think they felt that, because of my disability, I was an easy mark to simply harass out of my unit.
I was recently given an eviction notice by housing management stating that I was harassing them by sending emails asking them to stop this tenant from harassing me. Again, I had to fight this in Tenancy court. On November 24, 2014, the eviction was overturned.
Why might housing staff want me out of the building? Maybe because I speak up about issues and problems. For instance, I’ve spoken at tenant meetings about things like theft going on and people growing weed (cannabis) in their apartment. When a new complex was built next door, with a social club on the premises, I spoke up about staff at the club taking our parking spots. Our housing management had to put up giant signs after I sent in pictures for evidence, so they came after me. Housing staff just want peace, and if it’s at the cost of one person’s housing, whether they’re right or wrong, it’s easier to chuck out the individual, especially if they’re disabled.
What about harassment from other tenants? There are various reasons for this kind of harassment. For instance, some tenants might want the unit you have (e.g., it’s on a corner, or higher up, or has a better view). Or, they want to get housing for their friends. And the tenant that has been threatening me—I can only think that he’s earning ‘Brownie points’ for himself, so he’ll be in the supervisor’s ‘good books.’
Every person who has been evicted from where I live has been a disabled person. Most of them dared not speak up. Since this supervisor started, there have been three or four incidents where other people with disability were harassed, including with threat of eviction on no real grounds. Three have left; one killed himself.
I tried every available avenue to get help with my issues. I even sent an email to BC premier Ms. Clark’s office. I didn’t find help in any of the many organizations—including BC Housing. The only success I’ve had was done by myself.
The lack of compassion is shameful. Disabled people, whose lives are already bad enough, need safe places to live, where they can feel at home and not be treated like outcasts.