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A homeless man sleeps in a doorway in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

People who use drugs and live in rental housing in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside are at risk of being unlawfully evicted and often end up homeless as a result, says a new study by B.C. researchers.

And those arbitrary evictions make people more vulnerable to illness, problem drug use and even death.

“I think one of the saddest outcomes of this study was how difficult it was to find people for follow-up,” Ryan McNeil said on Tuesday. Dr. McNeil is a research scientist at the B.C. Centre on Substance Use and a co-author of the study.

“So first and foremost, we need to understand evictions as an event that can precipitate an immediate, sustained and sometimes fatal decline in health,” he added.

The study, published Tuesday in the International Journal of Drug Policy, was based on interviews with 56 people who use drugs and who had been recently evicted from rental accommodation in the Downtown Eastside.

Participants in the study had lived in both privately-owned (for profit) and non-profit housing in the neighbourhood.

Researchers found nuisance complaints, such as noise violations and breaches of building policies, were among the most commonly cited reasons for eviction, with participant accounts indicating such policies were “prejudicially enforced” among people who use drugs.

Researchers also found there was a “lack of clarity” over which non-profit housing was subject to B.C.'s Residential Tenancy Act, which sets out mandatory procedures for landlords who want to end a tenancy, including serving notice and returning security deposits.

That means tenants in some non-profit buildings may be unaware of their rights under the act, the study concluded.

BC Housing works with non-profit agencies that run the accommodations to determine whether to follow the Residential Tenancy Act or to strike a program agreement that sets out tenancy expectations, BC Housing spokeswoman Laura Mathews said in an e-mail.

“In every case, B.C. Housing works with a non-profit to prevent people from being evicted to the streets,” Ms. Mathews added.

B.C. declared a public-health emergency in April, 2016, in response to an increase in drug deaths and overdoses. At least 1,510 people died from illicit drug overdoses in 2018; the total has broken a record each year since 2015.

This month, the B.C. Coroners Service released a report on homeless deaths in the province, reporting 175 deaths in B.C., up 140 per cent from 73 the previous year.

In their report, researchers called for policy reforms to help ensure people had access to services such as dispute resolution.

Tenants in privately-owned single-room occupancy buildings, or SROs, reported being targeted by landlords for raising concerns about health and safety issues.

SROs – units averaging 100 square feet, often with a shared bathroom – are the primary source of low-income housing in the Downtown Eastside.

“Participants reported that their repeated requests for maintenance, repairs and pest control were ignored by building managers and landlords ... it was perceived they could be easily replaced due to the neighbourhood’s severe and sustained low-income housing shortage,” the report said.

“To say that they’re an absolute mess and a national embarrassment would be to understate the state they are actually in,” Dr. McNeil said, referring to SROs.

Follow-up interviews were conducted with 41 people. Participants were lost for reasons including opioid-related death, displacement to other neighbourhoods, going to jail or being in court-related treatment.

Dr. McNeil said he was not able to provide an exact number of people who had died, citing research ethics.

The City of Vancouver has closed problem hotels over health and safety concerns, ordering the Balmoral Hotel to close in June, 2017, and the Regent Hotel to close a year later, in June, 2018.

Both buildings, owned by Vancouver’s Sahota family, now sit empty, with boarded-up windows and tents often pitched on sidewalks out front.

The city filed a notice of expropriation for both of the buildings in July, 2018. That process remains under way.

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