British Columbia

'I've seen this fear before': Chinatown activist says stigma of homelessness needs to be remedied

When Melody Ma saw neighbours protesting temporary modular housing in Marpole, she decided to speak out against what she sees as a predisposed stigma equating homelessness to criminality, which she says is ingrained in some Asian cultures.

Activist calls on city to help address cultural stigma against homelessness, drugs

People against proposed modular housing in the Vancouver community of Marpole rally outside city hall on Nov. 10, 2017. (Harold Dupuis/CBC)

The backlash against social projects such as modular housing and supervised injection sites could be mitigated by more culturally specific outreach into Asian communities, says Chinatown advocate Melody Ma.

Ma said the predominantly Asian community in Marpole is pushing back against modular housing for the homeless based on a predisposed notion that equates homelessness with criminality.

"I've seen this fear before. I've seen it in Vancouver's Chinatown when they were protesting against Insite, the safe injection site. Right now, Edmonton's Chinatown is protesting four safe injection sites," she told Stephen Quinn, host of CBC's The Early Edition.

'Your family will fall apart'

As a young girl, Ma attended school in Vancouver's Strathcona neighbourhood, where she said she frequently saw needles on the ground,  but she was educated on safe practices to avoid injury.

"We were all safe. I can say that those fears that are expressed are unfounded," she said.

Based on her own experiences in school, Ma feels that a centuries-old stigma is perpetuated by current governments and education materials.

For example, she pointed to China's handover of Hong Kong to Britain following the opium wars of the mid-19th century as the genesis for anti-drug sentiments that have carried into modern day China and are still held by much of the Chinese diaspora.

"At the family level what you are taught growing up is that if you take drugs, your family will fall apart," she said.

"We can see that the combination of history, government as well as family and community reinforcement all together creates this Asian stigma toward drug users that immigrants might bring as baggage to North America or Vancouver."

Melody Ma is an advocate for civic issues, especially in Vancouver's Chinatown. (Ash Kelly/CBC)

China is not alone in its harsh treatment and rejection of drug users. Drug traffickers in the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia can face harsh sentences, including death, without any due process.

Drug users are closely monitored by the state, and even sent to labour camps in some countries, said Ma.

Cultural competency building

Because the stigma runs so deep in some communities, Ma is calling on the city to develop materials that apply a specific cultural lens in order to communicate properly about proposed projects in immigrant neighbourhoods.

"What I'm asking for is for the City of Vancouver to build cultural competency," she said.

"Take the initiative to start helping immigrant communities by building trust, by creating dialogue before any specific project is even pursued."

She said she's seen the capacity for immigrant communities to change their minds and engage in conversations beyond stigma.

"Chinatown's new perspective on Insite and its adamant support of that right now is a demonstration of that."

With files from CBC Radio One's The Early Edition