The dead end of homeless nationalism: From refugee camps to tent cities, displaced peoples unite!

At a rally supporting Anita Place tent city in the Vancouver suburb of Maple Ridge in March 2019, supporters of the homeless community faced off against local anti-homeless bigots. The political line dividing these camps was clear: one side blamed government policies and the economy for homelessness, while the other side saw homelessness as a personal, moral failure. Then, amidst chants of “homes not hate”, one woman who showed up at the rally to support camp yelled that the government is letting “terrorists” into the country and giving them warm places to sleep, while “Canadian citizens” languish on the streets. 

Unfortunately, the belief that refugees are stealing housing resources that should first go to citizens is common, even amongst low-income and homeless communities. At the tent city standoff, it was the one slogan that appealed to both the NIMBYs and the homeless. Everyone from disgruntled, would-be homeowners to homeless people are invited to join in on the story that Canadians are victimized by refugees! 

But the idea that refugees are stealing homes from the Canadian homeless is a mistake that is based on two false premises. First, that homeless people in Canada and refugees are different groups in competition with each other for resources. We argue that both are part of a growing international group of displaced people. And second, that there is a scarcity of housing in Canada. Of course, in the world around us housing is inaccessible and housing we can afford is scarce. But Canada does not have a problem of scarcity, it has the opposite problem: Canada is bloated with luxurious excess, but this voluminous wealth is hoarded by a shrinking minority and guarded from the poor of the world by police, military forces, private security, and border guards. 

Rather than compete with refugees over resources they do not have the power to distribute anyhow, it would be more accurate for homeless people to understand themselves as internally displaced people who are little different from refugees who have had to cross international borders to find safety. The question should not be about solidarity between two separate groups, but about uniting one group that has been divided and conquered.

Homeless nationalism?

A home in a Seattle tent city displays the American flag (Sara Bernard/Grist)

The structural commonality linking homeless people and refugees is their common position relative to capitalist value. Homeless people and refugees are both understood as people who can’t or won’t work wage labour jobs. In both cases, this is a myth: homeless people and refugees often work low-wage, dangerous, and undesirable jobs. But the social stigma that they don’t work places them both symbolically outside the capitalist production of value, or profit, which produces, justifies, and reinforces their disposability. Within this realm of disposability, race, gender, and colonial forms of power obscure the exploitation common to displaced peoples. When a white homeless man reports that he experiences his complete exile from civil society as feeling that he has failed as a white man, he reveals that Canadian nationalism centres white men, promising them power over women and trans and gender non-conforming people, over Indigenous people, and over racialized people. 

Working class white masculinity is both precarious and enduring: white working men feel a sense of race and gender power by working a job that can sustain a family. They get to fulfill a historic role as “breadwinner” and enjoy a security and civilization that they contrast against the immiseration of the poor of the world. White workingmen can mistake their exploitation for their power by identifying with their gender power at home and their race power within Canada’s borders. But the same system of production that fosters this partial consciousness can also, in an instant, take this oppressive power away. Working class white men who have been made homeless may, rather than rage against the economic and political system that has tossed them out, instead pine for their lost race and gender power. The ideology of race serves as a barrier to recognizing how similar their structural conditions are to refugees.

While white supremacy and settler colonialism go hand in hand, the social relations between white working class people and Indigenous peoples make up a separate and additional problem besides the race dynamics between white people and racialized people. Settler colonialism promises land to settlers by dispossessing and displacing Indigenous peoples. When white settlers cling to the entitlement of their citizenship as a way to cope with poverty, they do so because they interpret their poverty as a loss of access to the land wealth they expect as an entitlement owed to them because of their race and colonial position. Poor white workers’ sense of competition with refugees for housing on Indigenous lands has historical roots in western Canada as anti-Asian racism, as white workers fought for immigration laws to exclude Chinese, Japanese, and Sikh workers because they felt the jobs and homes stolen from Indigenous peoples should be white mens’ alone.

But even impoverished Indigenous people can fall prey to anti-refugee scapegoating. In Winnipeg, anti-refugee sentiments from Indigenous people directly relate to the sense that Indigenous communities must compete with refugees to access state resources. The building that currently houses the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba, for example, formerly housed Indigenous families, serving as an emblem of mutual exclusivity. An Indigenous employee of IRCOM explains that Indigenous people see refugee resettlement as “further colonization… We are further being displaced from our lands, from our food, from our waters.” 

The anti-refugee scarcity myth imposes a corrosive sense of competition onto various social groups, distracting them from the systemic causes of poverty, dispossession, and displacement. It also obscures the reality that the crises of homelessness and displacement plaguing communities across Canada—both Indigenous and working class—are part of a global phenomenon that includes all refugees, migrants, and internally displaced peoples. 

Displacement is global so our solutions must be too

According to the UN Refugee Agency, there are now more displaced people worldwide than ever before. In 2017, the most recent year with data, there were 68.5 million refugees, stateless people, and internally-displaced people on earth. This third category of “internally-displaced people” [IDP] is the largest, accounting for two-thirds of people displaced, but is likely a drastic under-estimate because the numbers of people displaced “legally,” through gentrification, for example, are not tracked by states or non-state groups. The number of internally displaced people has exploded since 2010, and the number of refugees has been rising every year since 2012. 

Canada is no exception to the global crisis of displacement. Displacement was a central strategy Canada used to establish its settler colonial occupation. By the federal government’s own estimate, residential schools displaced 150,000 Indigenous people from their territories and families over approximately 100 years. In 2017, Canada compensated 20,000 Indigenous people who had been displaced from their homes by the Sixties Scoop, and in 2011, Statistics Canada reported that 14,200 Indigenous youth were in foster care. Unsurprisingly, the Canadian state does not collect data on the forms of Indigenous displacement that have continued since the formal ending of colonial policies that have come to be seen as despicable by respectable society—like residential schools or the Sixties Scoop. Resource extraction projects, poverty and unhealthy and inadequate housing and a denial of basic infrastructure like drinking water on reserves, land theft, and day-to-day colonial violence including violence against Indigenous women all add up to displacement forces that push Indigenous people out of their home communities. 

Aside from the inadequate data compiled through the annual homeless counts done in major cities, Canada also does not track homelessness as an indicator of the crisis of internal displacement. There is no government record of evictions, or of tenants who have left their homes because gentrification has raised their rents and they can no longer afford to stay in their apartments. Unemployment is counted as the mobilization of the active workforce, to measure the availability of labour power as a commodity for sale to industry, not as a measure of human suffering. People who have been internally displaced by colonial, economic, and political forces make up the swelling ranks of homeless communities on the streets. Communities more vulnerable to displacement pressures are more likely to be homeless, which is why Indigenous people, who are approximately 4% of the overall population, are 40-50% of homeless populations. 

Internally displaced people survive outside the laws, social norms and customs, and economies of Canadian society, often seeking shelter and community in illicit spaces like tent cities. This survival strategy is also something that homeless people have in common with refugees. 

Police brutality and state repression: Tent cities in Calais, France

Cops posting eviction notices on makeshift structures at a migrant encampment in Calais, France (Calais Migrant Solidarity)

Since 1999, thousands of migrants in and around the French city of Calais have been building tent cities, which are periodically razed to the ground by police and state workers. In 2016, an encampment of roughly 6,000 migrants was displaced. Months later, the mayor of Calais banned food distribution to migrants, claiming that it threatened public safety. In 2014, Mayor Bouchart testified to British MPs that the rise in migrants was connected to organized crime and an increase in violence against white French women.

Rampant police abuses against migrants and refugees in Calais have been documented by human rights organizations. Cops “routinely use pepper spray on child and adult migrants while they are sleeping or in other circumstances in which they pose no threat; regularly spray or confiscate sleeping bags, blankets, and clothing; and sometimes use pepper spray on migrants’ food and water” and also sabotage humanitarian assistance efforts by aid organizations. Activist groups report that police often illegally evict squatters, ensuring that houses remain empty while people sleep on the streets, and police outside of Calais have been known to confiscate migrants’ mattresses, cooking equipment, and even their tents, leaving them with nothing but sleeping bags. 

Gentrification and public safety: Migrants in Beijing

About one third of Beijing’s population are migrant workers who lack the residential papers needed to access social and health services in Beijing. These workers are forced to take the lowest-paying and most exploitative jobs—jobs that keep the city running. In 2017, a fire killed over a dozen migrants in the neighborhood of Daxing. In response, the government sent in private security forces in riot gear, cut water and electricity to the area, and used safety concerns as an excuse to demolish scores of “illegal structures”, displacing tens of thousands of migrants with just ten days notice in the dead of winter. 

Beijing’s raid on a camp of internally displaced workers is eerily similar to tactics that various municipalities in British Columbia have used to displace tent cities. The cities of Maple Ridge, Saanich, and Nanaimo all cynically deployed legal arguments about “fire safety” in order to win injunctions against tent cities. The state shows no concern for the safety of homeless people camping in isolation, but as soon as they begin organizing, panic around the spread of a fire serves to justify violent displacement.

Since the massive displacement in Beijing, the government has announced major redevelopment plans for the Daxing neighborhood, which is sure to prevent migrants from ever being able to afford to return. Since 2014, the city has been attempting to push out its “low-end populations” through mass evictions that have shut down rental housing, small businesses, and street markets that migrants depend on for their survival, as well as blocked migrants’ children from being able to attend local schools. When the city’s population dropped for the first time in 17 years in 2017, Beijing Bureau of Statistics director, Pang Jiangqian, attributed the drop to the transition from “labour-intensive enterprises” to “high skill” industries. In other words, the city’s plan is to attract wealthier, professional-managerial types to the city to replace its poor, migrant population.

The government’s displacement of poor people and investment in gentrification mirrors what we see happening in “global cities” all over the world. Beijing sits in the Global Financial Centres Index’s ranking of the top 25 cities, alongside other Pacific Rim cities with massive internal displacement problems: San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Vancouver. These cities all have overwhelmingly service-oriented economies, and Beijing is home to more Fortune 500 companies than any city in the world. These global cities necessarily drive out poor people because they are built to accommodate a particular class composition of residents: executives in major corporations, service-industry professionals, and lower-wage service workers who cater to the needs of the first two groups. 

For international unity of displaced people

Homeless people internally displaced in North American cities have far more in common with migrant workers in the suburbs of Beijing and refugees in the tent cities of northern France than they do with “respectable” settler society in Canada.To feel and act as though the internal displacement of people made homeless in the US and Canada is part of global dynamics that are creating masses of dispossessed and displaced people worldwide means joining with and fighting for internationally displaced people, whether migrants or refugees. This is a difficult task to imagine for anyone, let alone for people whose lives are defined by desperate struggles for immediate survival. But the alternative is politically isolating and corrupting. When homeless settlers identify with Canada or the US as a means to validate their humanity and right to survival, they are creating a white homeless nationalism that excludes Indigenous people, migrants, and refugees. 

Not only does settler nationalism sacrifice the international solidarity needed to achieve an end to homelessness, it’s a completely false promise: no provincial or federal party in Canada is remotely interested in building the amount of social housing needed to end the homlessness and housing crisis, so it makes no sense to fight to be at the front of this imaginary queue. 

If displacement is global, then our solutions must be global too. Only by gathering together oppressed people from all sorts of national and cultural backgrounds, from refugee camps to tent cities, against our common enemies can we build a world without displacement. 

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