Defend tent city! Our survival is our togetherness in the street

Anita Place Tent City statement in solidarity with Nanaimo tent city fighters

Anita Place Tent City sends our solidarity and offers our support to the residents of the former tent city on the lawn of city hall in Nanaimo. We are excited by your fight for housing justice and your refusal to be disappeared into alleys and forests for the convenience of property and business owners and the government. Your struggle is ours. We have built and defended a tent city for 10 months. We want to encourage and support you to continue your fight, not to settle for less than you deserve, and to share some lessons from our fight with the hope that they might help you in yours.

Tent city is freedom

In May of 2017, as the city’s only low-barrier shelter was readying to close, homeless people in Maple Ridge decided to fight back. We had enough of the harassment and assaults from Ridgeilante bigots; we had enough of bylaw officers stealing our tents; we had enough of cops arresting us for being poor; we had enough of the promises and lies from the governments that said they would house us and never did. We broke through the fence around a city-owned empty lot and set up a tent city.

Ten months later, we have beaten every attempt of the government and police to break up our camp and scatter our community. In the midst of a devastating overdose death crisis we have saved the lives of our friends and community members. Hundreds of people have stayed in our camp and hundreds more have found sanctuary from a hostile public around us. Most importantly, our tent city is freedom. It is better than a shelter, better than supportive housing – here we make the rules and we support each other. We don’t ask for shelter beds and we won’t move into institutional housing because we survive by sticking together and defending ourselves.

Defence strategy 1: establishing tent cities

There have been two main ways we have defended our tent city against police and court-ordered displacement so far. The first stage of camp-defence was establishing the camp. Bylaw officers and cops use municipal and provincial laws to harass homeless people out of public spaces all the time. When we started our camp (on publicly owned, private land – an empty lot not a park) they tried to use the same laws they always do. There have recently been BC Supreme Court decisions that say governments can’t simply remove a group of homeless people from camps on public land, but in order to establish such a legal claim we have to broadcast the existence of a camp right away. We established our camp by starting with a political statement, rallying supporters, and using the media.

Bylaw and police still tried to smash Anita Place after the first week, under the direction of a renegade city councillor wanting to run for mayor. Early in the morning the RCMP and bylaw seized any unoccupied tent and belongings and the tarps and everything that wasn’t nailed down. Those of us who were sharing tents quickly jumped into empty tents and claimed them as our own. That meant they seized less tents. And when the raid was over we called the media and argued that the city had violated our Charter rights. We organized an emergency protest at City Hall on the weekend with supporters and took over the highway to march to camp. We were able to establish the camp and take away the legal power of the bylaw and police to remove us by making a public case.

Defence strategy 2: taking away the city’s power to break up our camps

The second stage of defending our tent city was in the courts. The City of Maple Ridge tried twice to break up our camp by filing for a Supreme Court injunction. Lawyers with Pivot Legal Society took our case and assembled legal affidavits from lots of campers and supporters about how the camp improved the safety and quality of life of homeless people. We don’t have the right to be housed, but we do have the right to security. The government is not legally compelled to provide us housing, but the court can strip the government of the power to displace our camps if we can show that they will be harming our security by doing so. But our claim to security has to be balanced against harm to others. That’s why taking publicly owned empty lots is stronger than taking a park – there is very little public inconvenience (“harm”) caused by homeless people using an empty lot 24/7.

Homes not shelters / Homes not institutions

When we started Anita Place tent city our main slogan was “homes not shelters.” Our community had already had a painful experience with being displaced into a shelter. We had a tent city in 2016 that was broken up by moving residents into a shelter in a storefront. It was supposed to be temporary but 40 of us were stuck there for nearly 2 years. And when it closed, we were back on the street. The government broke up our camp in order to end the problem of the visibility of the camp, not to end homelessness.

In 10 months at Anita Place our opposition to shelters – and “supportive” housing – has grown more determined. Joe, a founding resident of Anita Place tent city said, “shelters aren’t trying to end homelessness – they’re maintaining it.” We have won 40 units of supportive housing but that institutional kind of housing, where residents exchange their autonomy and even their tenant rights for a super-supervised room, also feels like its main purpose is breaking up our community. Dwayne, another camp founder who also lived at the emergency shelter said, “The reason the government wants us to move into supportive housing is that they want to take our voices. They are trying to get rid of us. They can’t.” The truth is that our tent city has become more than a protest camp – we won’t leave it because it is better than a shelter or supportive housing.

Nanaimo tent city is power

Remember that you were homeless long before you started a tent city at Nanaimo city hall. But when you started your tent city you created a public crisis by exposing the crisis of homelessness, disrupting business as usual, and emerging as political actors. Your tent city, like ours in Maple Ridge, is your community power, it is your independence and freedom – don’t give it up.

We want to open up a discussion with you to work together on how we can continue to build and foster our community spaces, autonomy, and power while also getting warm and dry places to live. We are stronger when we come together from our isolation into tent cities, and we will be stronger still when we can bring our tent cities together. Any attack on you is an attack on us. We don’t need the property owners that want us in prison, and we don’t need the government that wants to put us in shelters or institutions. We will stand with you, defend you, and help you because we need each other.

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