Next year, the FIRST UNITED Legal Advocacy program will turn 50 years old. Only our Meal program and
community drop-in pre-date the Advocacy program. It goes to show: people need to be fed, need a safe place to be, and need their rights upheld.
Today, the Advocacy program is in high demand, especially for tenancy issues. Each year our legal advocates manage upward of 1500 cases. Advocacy Manager Didi Dufresne has been with FIRST for 12 years and has worked in the Downtown Eastside for even longer. Didi has a big, easy smile and is sharp as a tack. When I ask them what their vision is for the Advocacy department at FIRST, they chuckle and say “to become useless! We want to put ourselves out of business.” This may sound alarming, but it would mean that we’ve solved the legal challenges that our neighbours face, and there’s simply no longer a demand for our services.
But, Didi knows that the work we’ve done up until this point, as vital and important as it is, doesn’t actually get to that root. “We help people avoid eviction and stay in their homes, and even if it’s just for a few months, that’s great. But we’re moving away from a purely harm reduction approach. It’s important, but it doesn’t create a more equitable society.”
In early 2022, Sarah Marsden joined the team as Staff Lawyer. Sarah’s scope is to take on law reform at the provincial level, specifically around tenancy and evictions. Law reform is slow moving—much slower than individual case management—but does have the potential to improve justice and equity. For example, right now, we have a law that says if you lose an eviction hearing, you have to vacate the premises in two days. Could you pack up your entire home, arrange movers and trucks, perhaps storage, and find a new place to stay in 48 hours? In the Vancouver market, no less!
Didi explains: “I tell people, ‘You have a good case, you have a winnable case, but if you lose you don’t have a home in two days.” It becomes more about risk tolerance rather than justice. This is just one example of how FIRST could get involved in law reform: by advocating to change the two-day limit to something more reasonable and realistic that won’t leave people stranded and homeless. The point is to help many people by improving the laws and systems we’re all bound by. That’s how we make a more equitable society. Maybe on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Legal Advocacy program we’ll announce that the program is coming to a close because we achieved our goal of a strong, equitable society that respects the rights of all.