Victoria’s “Super In Tent City” started in the late fall when homeless people set up tents on the lawn of the downtown courthouse. Sick of being chased out of parks every morning by police and security guards enforcing the city’s anti-homeless time-limited camping bylaws, they took space where they finally found respite from daily harassment and move-alongs. Now the province is applying for a court injunction to to break up this space and scatter homeless residents back to the routine of daily displacement from parks. But Super In Tent City residents are saying no to further displacement, and residents of tent cities and their allies around British Columbia are pledging to stand with them, no matter what form their resistance takes.
On February 25th Super InTent City held a rally in opposition to eviction threats from the Province. “The temporary and limited options from the provincial government… are not appropriate for all members of Super InTent City,” said Anna, a resident-leader of the camp. “We are saying no to displacement. If you force us of this lawn, we will back under the bridges, dispersed into parks and the doors of this City where we are more isolated and less safe. We need permanent solutions, not temporary solutions and bandaids. A shelter is not a home.”
Tent cities have become the last refuge for people with nowhere to go, and also a place of homeless people’s resistance and resilience. While tent cities are created by the poverty caused by capitalism and colonialism and by government austerity, they are also spaces where homeless people fight back and create healing and supportive communities on their own terms. Anna explained, “Here we have found a sanctuary.” Another resident, Crystal, elaborated “by being here together among peers and being accountable to people on the same level we have been able to heal each other.” Mud had the same message to the crowd gathered at the Super InTent City rally, “We need spaces where we can look out for each other and take care of each other, because the city, the province and the government is not doing it for us.” Audrey Siegl an organizer of the Oppenheimer Tent City in Vancouver explained how people in the tent city cared for eachother, and provided safety and support for each other. “The City said the park was unsafe for women, well in fact the park was safer for women when the tent city was there then when it wasn’t there.”
According to Super InTent City supporter Kym Hines, “When service providers ask us what we want, this is what I hear and correct me if I am wrong, but people want community. Downtown Eastside has Carnegie. This is our Carnegie, a place where there is more acceptance. This is what people want everywhere, community and social housing which is open and led by the people living there. Lord of flies didn’t happen here, community happened here.”
This sentiment echoed amongst people from tent cities throughout the unceded Indigenous territories occupied by British Columbia. Alliance Against Displacement organized a delegation of forty-four people from the tent cities, shelters, and anti-displacement and housing justice movements on the mainland, including from Abbotsford, Maple Ridge and Downtown Eastside, to support Super InTent City’s fight back.
The importance of having social housing accountable and led by residents was highlighted by Karen Lane, who lived at the Oppenheimer Park tent city from June to October 2014. “I got housing from tent city, but the housing I got was so called ‘supportive housing,’” Karen explained. “It was very institutional. We were not even allowed visitors at this building. As a terminally ill woman, I wanted to be able to have people visit me, to have my grandchildren and my family near to me. Even after two years I couldn’t have my family with me. We need to change social housing and how it is institutional, not just get social housing.”
A delegation from Abbotsford’s Dignity Village tent city said that Victoria homeless complaint about bylaw officer move-alongs resonated with them. After the BC Supreme Court ruled that Abbotsford’s anti-homelessness bylaws were unconstitutional, and that people have a charter right to take shelter in public parks (between 7pm and 9am) if no other shelter is available, Abbotsford city council passed new bylaws making it legal to camp in parks at night, finally accepted provincial money for a temporary homeless shelter, and just days before the rally in support of Super InTent city, police scattered Dignity Village. According to Tiny from Abbotsford, “There is a battle going on everywhere. It is not just in Abbotsford where we got chicken manure dumped on us, the battle is raging across British Columbia.”
Meanwhile, delegates from the DTES and Maple Ridge explained that the lifeline on their winter shelters is running up. These shelters open every fall and close when rains slow every April. This is the first year such a shelter has opened in Maple Ridge. The forty homeless people staying there were shuttled into the shelter or off into isolation when police closed the Cliff Avenue tent city in October. The shelter is scheduled to close on March 31st when, as one resident guessed, “If the cops don’t pick us up and house us in jail, we’ll have to march down and open a new tent city.”
On February 25th, Super InTent City hosted a historic gathering. Residents and veterans of tent cities in Victoria, Abbotsford, Maple Ridge, and the Downtown Eastside stood together and declared that together they were a movement, that they would stand together and defend each other. At the end of the rally those assembled passed (by cheering and applause) a three-point declaration of principles for this Super InTent city movement, and in the days that have followed they have edited and refined it. This is a working document, but it outlines three central principles that will come to define a new period of struggle against homelessness; one where homeless and displaced people, a great and growing floating population, refuse to beg for services they deserve as human beings, refuse to be criminalized and institutionalized as the basic fact of their existence, and begin to take the space they need to survive.
Three Draft Principles for a Tent City Movement
- Homes not shelters! We refuse to be hidden away in temporary shelters or scattered with insecure rent subsidies. We need regular, tax-funded, social housing programs to build, every year, ten thousand units of housing available to people at welfare/pension rate in British Columbia. We don’t need service providers to run this housing for us as “supportive,” institutionalized rooms. Our social housing must be run as normal apartments, covered by the Residential Tenancy Act. But even social housing is only one part of ending poverty; housing security is impossible without lifting all people out of poverty by guaranteeing a livable income for all, whether by raising welfare and disability rates or implementing a guaranteed income program.
- Support tent cities! Amidst the violence of homelessness, tent cities are relatively safe and secure places for homeless people because they are self-determined community spaces. If we are displaced we are unsafe and vulnerable, but together we are strong. Until homelessness is ended through the combined efforts of every level of government, every municipality must treat tent cities as “permanent” , run by tent city resident councils, and left alone to operate on their own terms. Tent city sites must be provided with basic amenities like water and bathrooms, be close to the downtown of cities, near the services, supports, and communities that tent city residents depend on to survive.
- Smash the new poor laws! End all discriminatory anti-homeless bylaws that legislate limited, night time-only hours that homeless people are allowed to set up shelters in public parks. These laws mandate police and security guards to harass and brutalize homeless people and encourage an anti-homeless belief that homeless people are not part of the public. Homeless people are full-fledged members of the public and must be free to enjoy and seek shelter in public spaces as they need it, no matter the time of day.