Update on the Schoolhouse Squat and BC Housing’s new announcement about housing and the destiny of Discontent City

Two big things happened on the Friday of the Thanks-taking weekend: the Provincial government made an announcement about Discontent City, and a group of 24 camp residents and supporters started a squat at the abandoned Rutherford Elementary School. This statement will separate myths from facts about both of these events.

The Schoolhouse Squat

Why a squat? Two simple reasons: First, because we believe that people without houses should use buildings without people. Second, because Judge Skolrod and the Supreme Court ruled that, while tent cities provide community, safety, and security, they are also a fire hazard. We believe that this means tent cities without tents (squats!) should be a reasonable and legal solution to homelessness as long as the government is not building the housing we so desperately need. The truth is that our homes can’t wait for bullshit politicians.

Did the squatters trash the school? No, of course not. Why would we? We wanted to live there! The police and politicians and their army of online trolls are spreading lies that squatters trashed the abandoned school. The photos they use as evidence of this destruction show desks stacked in a hallway, a newly opened box of hypodermic needles, a sheathed utility knife, and some beautiful art that squatters painted on one wall. But the lens of moral panic is blotting out what the photos actually show, and a segment of the public sees only “Drugs! Weapons! Destruction!” Someone on social media even posted a photo of a trashed kitchen from some other place and lied, saying it was from Rutherford. The School Board trustees that claim the squatters caused $100,000 worth of damage talk about doors broken on the first floor (which was done by police battering rams) and “holes in the roof” (which were a few nail holes through the tar paper that can be patched with roofing tar if they need to be patched at all). The School Board trustees that are bashing squatters and claiming damage are the same ones who voted to close the school. School Board Chair Steve Rae, the most vocal critic of the squat, not only voted to shutter Rutherford, but responded to parents opposed to the decision by literally giving them the finger.

School Board Chair Steve Rae gives parents the middle finger.

Did the Schoolhouse Squat represent Discontent City? The squat represented the camp as a whole. It’s true that not every single resident agrees with the action; this would be impossible, as each resident has their own agency and opinions. After the City of Nanaimo won their court injunction to break up Discontent City, we camp residents and organizers arrived collectively at the decision to start a squat through discussions at camp council meetings and two full-camp meetings. We decided to delegate a smaller group do all the specific planning about a date, location, and action plan for the obvious reason that if the plan leaked to unsympathetic people (or the cops) then it would be foiled before it started. The camp council took on the work of planning the action, and planned to come back to camp and invite everyone to join in (inside and outside the building) immediately after squat started.

What happened? The school board decided to evict the squat immediately and the police and Crown charged everyone inside with break and enter. In the last 30 years in BC, squats and occupations have been evicted using trespass and mischief charges, which are generally associated with protest. In this case the Courts used a charge associated with criminality and treated the squatters as a criminal gang. They immediately declared the squat a crime scene and wrapped the property in police tape and 24-hour RCMP guard, stopping us from connecting with supporters and Discontent City residents and inviting more people inside or to the property. Then, at 10:30am (to the cheers of a crowd of anti-homeless bigots) about fifty cops rolled in to raid and clear the school. We all went out on the roof and sat together with our arms linked, chanting to support and cheer each other as they arrested us one-by-one and took us off the roof in a fire truck cherry picker.

Why did the police hit the squat so hard? In the past couple of months, the BC government and the Courts have taken a hard line approach towards homeless people’s organizing. In Saanich, the government displaced Camp Namegans with a court order and chased homeless people from one site to another, keeping them from staying together anywhere. In Nanaimo, the City’s court injunction allows them to break up Discontent City without providing accommodations (not even shelter beds). The City is even restricting access to sleeping in parks with a new series of punitive parks bylaws. The brutal takedown of the squat is consistent with the government’s growing use of open repression to smash homeless people’s resistance to the harms of homelessness.

An important lesson of the Schoolhouse Squat is that the BC NDP government and the City of Nanaimo will not allow homeless people to exist in tent cities, abandoned buildings, or freely in parks, and they will not build housing. The government’s answer to homeless people fighting for their lives is police repression.

Provincial government’s announcement about “housing” for Discontent City

On Friday, just an hour before the Schoolhouse Squat started, the Province of British Columbia made an announcement about Discontent City. This announcement is a bit complicated and very important, so let’s unpack it carefully.

Announcement 1: Housing

Selena Robinson, the BC Minister of Housing, announced Friday that the government will provide 170 units of housing for people living in Discontent City. This sounds great, and the media is full of good-news stories. But the obvious truth is that 170 beds is only about one-fifth of what is needed to house the homeless and take away the need for Discontent City.

The 170 units of new “housing” is what the government refers to as “work camp style” housing. It is not “modular housing.” Work camp style housing is an Atco trailer, split into 2 8X10 rooms – about the size (and feel) of a prison cell. It would be more accurate to refer to this style of housing as a shelter than a house. Let’s use the term “Atco Shelter” rather than housing.

Minister Robinson says the Atco Shelters will be operated with “wrap-around” services. The phrase “wrap-around” sounds like a straight jacket because it is. The Atco Shelters will be run by a social service organization in cooperation with police; the trailers will be used as a place to surveil and contain people moved into the Atco Shelters from camp. While we don’t know the specifics of how the Nanaimo Atco Shelters will be operated, we can guess because BC Housing has opened similar trailers in Surrey. There, residents are treated as patients, not rights-bearing residents. Guests have to be approved by staff and they have to have identification. Staff do regular and arbitrary searches of peoples rooms and surveillance cameras record your comings and goings in hallways and at the front door. Researchers have found that shelter operators share this camera footage with police. Finally, residents are not protected by the Residential Tenancy Act: you can be evicted on the whim of the operator. Homeless residents of Surrey report that over 40 people have been evicted in the three months since the trailers opened.

There are rumours that BC Housing reps have said they will provide rent supplements for others in the camp, but this was not part of their announcement and so-far is only a rumour.

Announcement 2: The Province says Discontent City should be able stay until the housing is ready

Minister Robinson also announced that the Province is asking the City of Nanaimo to hold off on enforcing the Court injunction they won against Discontent City. The injunction deadline is Friday October 12th; Minister Robinson is asking that the City allow the camp to remain until the Atco Shelters are open and some people have been moved in. Instead of abiding by the Province’s request, Nanaimo’s Fire Chief and Director of Public Safety Karen Fry told residents and organizers at a meeting on Tuesday, October 9th, that the City will be moving ahead with the October 12th deadline. When pushed on why the City is ignoring the Province’s request to wait until some housing is ready, their only justification was “the court gave us this date.” Fry’s directive is for police to arrest anyone remaining in Discontent City after midnight Friday. Their plan is to eject 300 people into the streets of Nanaimo with nothing but maps of City parks.

The City’s plan to smash the tent city, irrespective of the Province’s recommendations, is in sync with the mobs of bigots who have mobilized against Discontent City from day one. If the tent city is shut down this week, people will have no options but night by night camping in parks, which will make them vulnerable to harassment by the litany of new ticketing powers wielded by Nanaimo bylaw officers and police. All of the City and Karen Fry’s actions suggest that their number one goal is to rid Nanaimo of the presence of homeless people, either by sentencing them to death, or making life so unliveable that they go further and further away in search of respite from the bullying of bigoted citizens and the arms of the state. Prior to the Province’s announcement, the City prepared for Discontent’s dissolution by passing additional bylaws that will give officers indiscriminate power to criminalize and ticket homeless people, including fining people for failing “to obey a person in charge of activity”, remaining “when directed to leave”, and doing “activity contrary to signs” and “activity not designated”. Believing that the City will cooperate with the Province to build long-term housing, when they won’t even cooperate to mitigate a few of the harms of shutting the tent city down, proves why Schoolhouse Squat was necessary: because we cannot defer to the powers who want us dead or gone to give us what we need to survive.

Minister Robinson’s plan to delay the shutdown of Discontent was double-edged. On the one side, it would have delayed displacement, but on the other, it promised to resource 24/7 security to the City so that police could take full control over Discontent. Our communities had experience with this sort of government-control when the injunction deadline passed at Camp Namegans in Saanich. It was terrible. The RCMP set up a fence, spotlights, and a gate under police control, where they determined who and when could come into camp. Inside this police camp, police officers raided, searched, and destroyed people’s homes. The police arbitrarily barred some residents who left and tried to come back and in the end closed the camp suddenly and bulldozed the remaining tents.

The Province is advocating for the tent city to become a prison camp while used trailer cells are prepared to warehouse people, without any plans for permanent, social housing. The City is refusing to cooperate and would rather banish homeless people from Nanaimo entirely, in order to cater to anti-homeless hatred and sidestep the question of building permanent housing. Both these visions work to smash the working class and Indigenous organization, and while one might be marginally better than the other, they are both bleak realities. Our unity in action has won us everything we have – even the poison pill of Atco trailers – and it is the only thing that gives us the power to keep fighting for homes and justice, which is why the City and Province are trying desperately to take it away. We can submit to being controlled and criminalized by police, whether in the streets or in a tent city invaded by cops and social workers, or, we can fight like hell to stay together, keep organizing, and fight against the state’s attempt to crush our spirits and survival.

(Beautiful fan art by the talented Catherine Hart.)