Historic summit unites local struggles into a movement against displacement

Report on the outcomes of Alliance Against Displacement’s spring 2016 organizing summit

On the weekend of June 11-12, 2016 Alliance Against Displacement organized a gathering of leaders of homeless and evicted peoples’ movements throughout southern British Columbia. At the Dogwood Centre for Socialist Education, the “Together Against Displacement and Dispossession” summit gathered more than 50 people. Attendees included those from Victoria’s Super InTent City, Maple Ridge’s Cliff Avenue Tent City, Abbotsford’s Dignity Village, Surrey’s 135A nightly street camp, Burnaby’s Stop Demovictions Campaign, The Volcano newspaper, and Downtown Eastside housing and anti-poverty groups, including Our Homes Can’t Wait, DTES Power of Women group, Chinatown Action Group, and VANDU. Representatives of these struggles discussed and compared notes, and, by the end of the day Sunday, drafted a set of unifying ideas: shared enemies, shared campaigns, and three unifying ideas. Out of similar but isolated struggles in different communities, these unifying ideas have laid the foundation for a new social movement of the displaced.

Day One: Learning together

Day one of the summit was dedicated to discussing and learning from each other’s struggles. The first session was dedicated to reports from each group about the main issues they face in their specific communities. And from that foundation, the second session, “Taking stock: lessons from our recent struggles,” examined the lessons we can all learn from these specific struggles. When VANDU presented on their fight against the war on drugs, discussion focused on stopping police “red zoning” of homeless people. In Surrey, Wanda explained, RCMP officers serve “promise to appear” notices that no-go people from blocks that include essential services. Ocean said the only way to get those red-zoning orders lifted is to go to court. In Victoria, Vic said, “the cops red-zone you with threats. After one cop punched me out and broke my ribs he said if he sees me again he’d beat me down again.”

Mama Bear and Tracy from Maple Ridge presented on their experience with tent cities as healthier and safer spaces for women on the street. Mama Bear said that there are very few harm reduction and health services for drug users in Maple Ridge, so the camp saved lives. “Over forty people OD’d in Cliff Avenue Tent City and there was only one death.” And women leaders were able to enforce cooperative rules in the camp, and keep violence at bay. Mama Bear explained, “Lots of the guys in our camp wouldn’t stand up for women. We had to make them defend everyone in the camp by standing up to them first.” Mama Bear, Tracy, and other women in the camp set up rules: no fighting, no stealing from each other, and no harassing women. “I wouldn’t stand for that,” Mama Bear said. She explained that women on the street in Maple Ridge, particularly sex workers, are always in danger of violence. “The police can’t protect us, the City can’t protect us, but at the camp we protected each other,” she said.

Kye and Ashley from Victoria Super InTent City presented on their experiences with the state’s different attempts to break up or regulate their camp. Ashley said, “Government solutions don’t work because they don’t work for people. They give rent supplements when there’s no rental housing and contracts to service providers that bar people who need services.” Kye said they had gotten used to dealing with cops and the courts and no one had any illusions about them. But when Portland Hotel Society came in it was confusing at first. “I hope we can come up with a strategy about how to deal with social workers,” he said. Wanda said, “The social workers aren’t there on 135A in Surrey to help us, they’re there to target us. They work with the cops.” The way Super InTent City learned that they had to navigate the more in-depth control of social workers was to out-organize them, to form a tent city residents’ council as an instrument of grassroots democracy.

The third session of the day was titled “Austerity, Gentrification, and Revanchism: Understanding the Terms of our Times.” Jean Swanson from Carnegie Community Action Project said that in the 1970s the DTES Residents Association (DERA) had a lot of campaigns, but homelessness was not one of them because homelessness was not a significant issue. It was about one-tenth of what it is now. Homelessness, she said, became an issue after the right-wing think tanks started pushing “blame the poor” ideas and poor bashing policies. With those ideas came austerity policies: governments cut taxes on the rich and cut social programs for the poor.

Revanchism was a new term to a lot of people at the summit, but the word’s meaning – society seeking revenge against the poor for the visibility of poverty and social disorder – was not a new concept. Nick, from Abbotsford Dignity Village, said that revanchism explains how he ended up on the street. “After my mother died,” he said, “I was looking for a place but it was all ‘multi-family crime-free housing.’ I have 20 years locked in a cage so at every place my name came up on CPIC and the cops told every landlord not to rent to me.” In response to revanchist violence in Abbotsford, which included the infamous “chicken shit” incident when police dumped chicken manure on a homeless camp, Nick and other homeless people set up Dignity Village, a space where they could be safer and create a community that cared for eachother against those outside pressures.

Gentrification was a term left to Kaye from the Stop Demovictions Burnaby campaign. She explained that the mass demolition of rental apartments in Metrotown for high end condos was not an accident or inevitable, it was organized by the city of Burnaby against the lower income tenants. Jannie from the Chinatown Action Group said gentrification, austerity, and revanchism often come together in a package. In their fight against gentrification and displacement in the Downtown Eastside, Chinese seniors feel all these pressures. Sometimes they express anti-poor sentiments, despite being low-income themselves, and sometimes other low-income people express anti-Chinese racist sentiments, despite sharing these anti-gentrification struggles. Carol Romanow, a VANDU volunteer who lives in Pitt Meadows, argued that disability is another problem within this web of frameworks. “Some people with disabilities can’t stay in tent cities because of the noise and crowds, and others with disabilities can’t get into the housing we win because it’s not accessible,” she said. The strongest call that finished day one was for a movement that can attend to all these pressures and not leave anyone behind. This feeling was amplified at the evening plenary event, “Reconcile This!” held at the Grandview Calvalry Baptist Church (where we all slept on mats afterwards). See the separate report on Reconcile This! Here.

Day two: Three unifying ideas that make a movement

Sunday morning, after a long day, night, and overnight together, group representatives reconvened at the Dogwood Centre over breakfast prepared even earlier by Teresa Diewert. Teresa planned and cooked three meals a day plus snacks for all the summit participants and the love (as well as nutrition) in her meals was likely the strongest force that propelled us all along through so many challenging discussions. After breakfast we got back in a circle and, with ideas from Saturday mapped out across flip charts, we hammered out ideas and agreements that can unify our local struggles into a powerful movement against displacement.

Alliance Against Displacement had originally hoped that we would emerge out of the summit with one single demand and action plan that our different communities could take up alongside all our local struggles. It turned out that the perspectives and needs of those in the room were too diverse, layered, and complex to sum up in a single demand or campaign. Perhaps, we said, in the lead up to next year’s provincial election we might choose a single tactical slogan, but for now we need to instead continue to develop the richness of what we believe.

First, we tried to sum up our discussion the previous day into some forces that we’re up against, how we experience them, and who specifically is responsible for the violence carried out against our communities. This discussion was not complete, but the brainstorming session shows some idea of where the room was at.