A loss for Camp Namegans tent city in court signifies a new period of homelessness in BC

Friday, September 7th marks a turning point for homelessness in BC. Supreme Court Justice Ward Branch issued an injunction against Camp Namegans, the 4-month-old tent city in Saanich, sending over 100 homeless people back into the thralls of daily displacement. The period when mass homelessness was considered novel has passed. During that period, the courts responded to injunction requests by weighing public responsibility over property rights. They criticized governments’ inadequate responses to the homelessness crisis and withheld displacement powers from them unless they showed that tent city residents would have access to housing or, at least, shelter beds.

But Justice Branch evicted Camp Namegans from Regina Park despite the fact that residents had nowhere else to go. He heard about the health and safety benefits of the camp and the life-threatening harms of displacement, but found the Shantz provision – which allows homeless people to sleep in parks night-by-night – to be an adequate civic response to homelessness. Friday’s decision marks a shift from recognizing homeless as a crisis that requires an urgent response to normalizing it – accepting and expecting that more and more people will sleep in parks, alleys, and doorways in cities across the province.

Tent cities save lives, displacement kills

BC is home to three of the largest tent cities in the country, with close to 300 people living at Discontent City in Nanaimo and 150 at Anita Place in Maple Ridge. Increasingly, governments are using draconian fire orders to drive people into unlivable conditions (e.g., Discontent City’s no tarp order) under the threat of eviction. They exaggerate the single-issue of fire risk, while turning a blind eye to the myriad other risks associated with homelessness. During the four months that Camp Namegans was at Regina Park, a homeless man in Victoria was crushed in a cardboard compactor, and another man sourcing bottles from a shopping centre recycling bin was severely beaten by two security guards. Anita Place in Maple Ridge was named after a woman who died in a clothing donation bin looking for clothing and blankets during the winter months.

Homeless people face higher rates of violence, injury, and illness; their life expectancy is half that of the average person in Canada. Tent cities are proven to reduce the harms of homelessness and save lives. When courts and governments justify breaking up camps by citing safety concerns, they are cynically deploying the language of safety as a weapon against homeless people, dismantling their collective power and ultimately undermining their ability to keep each other alive.

In the last three years, tent cities have drastically changed the landscape of homelessness in BC. In areas where homeless people are organized, they no longer have to experience homelessness in isolation. Their political consciousness grows as they realize they aren’t homeless because of something they did – that homelessness is a shared experience, which occurs when governments prioritize housing as a commodity over people’s lives. Tent cities make it clear that homelessness is not a problem of the individual, but one of housing affordability, availability, and access.

Importantly, organized homeless people have exposed the inadequacy of shelters and supportive housing, raising the bar as to what can be considered a home. They have also drawn attention to housing and shelter policies that kill people, like guest policies that leave people isolated in their rooms to overdose and die. They have challenged punitive rules that bar couples from sleeping in the same room. People are no longer willing to sacrifice their rights to get housing.

In tent cities people are houseless but not homeless

Organized homeless people continue to challenge the myth that the poor are either ‘deserving’ or ‘undeserving’. Tent cities are full of people who are highly criminalized – including a segment of the homeless population who have money to pay rent, but face such severe judgement when they show up to view a rental unit that they will always be denied. These are the same people who are banned from shelters and supportive housing and are further criminalized when accessing services. They face an endless cycle from jail to street to jail again.

In tent cities, homeless people are thriving; they are building community, learning new ways of being and dealing with conflict, making steps to move away from violent pasts, and getting access to necessary health and social services. This is transformative work. Homeless people have taken control of their homes and lives; they are running their own communities, no longer only the recipients of services, living under the thumb of service providers. The charity model has been replaced with a model of community power.

Chief Justice Ward’s decision to displace 100 homeless people was a surprise, but it can be explained. When they are living in tent cities, homeless people are no longer homeless. Tent cities call into question everything society thinks about homeless people – that they are incapable of running their lives, that they are a distinctive population – sick or criminal – that needs to be managed. By running their own communities without service provider control, tent city residents challenge an entire system of homeless management. They call into question the idea that you have to own a home or pay rent in order to exist.

As an Indigenous-run tent city, Camp Namegans is doing the work of decolonizing, while providing sanctuary for Indigenous people who have been dispossessed of their lands, their nations, and pushed onto the street. The use of public land for survival challenges the very notion of private property on which our entire colonial legal system is based.

Thorny legal pathways ahead

We are at a catch-22 in the legal battle surrounding tent cities. If courts continue to rule that overnight camping is a sufficient response to homelessness, then cities can simply open up parks and increase bylaw personnel to regulate them. If overnight camping bylaws are ruled unconstitutional and 24/7 camping becomes legally regulated, then governments will no longer face pressure to provide housing. Tent cities will go from being autonomous spaces, where homeless people exercise self-determination and political power, to service provider-run sites, where homeless people have no power over their lives or the world around them.

As we fight against the police raids that seek to crush Camp Namegans and scatter its residents across Saanich, isolated and vulnerable, we must remember that we are not fighting for the right to a parcel of land – whether municipal or provincial – where people will be regulated and policed by the state. We are not fighting for the right to be homeless, which will only further entrench the normalization of homelessness. We are fighting because homelessness is still a crisis, and the only way out of that crisis it not through rights but power. The Supreme Court ruling that forces people back into daily displacement will be met with resistance.

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