“This is our Sanctuary and we won’t let them take it from us”: Surrey homeless camp still resisting displacement

Sanctuary Tent City was catapulted into the headlines in early July, 2019, after the City of Surrey threatened to displace the homeless camp. Tent city residents responded with a press conference announcing plans to resist the displacement of their home and community. Wanda Stopa, a longtime homeless activist and Sanctuary Tent City founder, told the press, “Bylaw threatens to come in with bulldozers, take our belongings, and arrest us. We’re going to stand up and fight because we have nowhere else to go.” 

Two months later, the camp is still standing. Residents attribute this success to their organizing. As Rory Kohinsky, a member of the Sanctuary Tent City residents’ council, said, “We’re visible. People are paying attention. That means the city can’t just come in and do whatever it wants.” In order to carry on surviving as a group, campers are continuing to organize, build support, and put pressure on the city. “We’re still here and that’s great, but we need to keep fighting,” said Wanda. “We need basic resources, like garbage collection, running water, and washrooms – and we need homes.”

The visibility of Sanctuary Tent City has helped to dispel the myth that Surrey solved its homelessness crisis last year when it closed down the high profile homeless camp known as the Surrey Strip. According to Wanda, “There were roughly 1000 homeless people in Surrey when the Strip was closed. Only 160 people got beds, and there are more and more people becoming homeless every day.” Rory said, “A lot of us living at Sanctuary were shuffled off of the Surrey Strip into the shelters or the bush. Eventually we found our way here.” 

Surrey high school students show solidarity with tent city residents using the hashtag #SaveOurSanctuary

When people are scattered and isolated in the bush, they are subject to constant harassment and displacement. By banding together, Sanctuary Tent City residents have created a degree of autonomous safety and stability. “I came here because I was being chased from bush to bush by bylaw,” said Rory. “When I was camping alone, I was scared to leave my things. I would go eat, then come right back to my camp. Living here takes a load off my mind. I can live my life.” According to Wanda, “By building community and looking out for each other, we can save lives.” 

Residents of Sanctuary Tent City know from experience that they are safer living in their own self-managed community than camping alone in the bush. This is the argument they made when the City of Surrey, following the example set by Maple Ridge’s city council, attempted to dismantle the camp under the cover of “fire safety.” 

Tent city residents saw the City’s “fire safety” argument as nothing but a disingenuous excuse to justify displacement. Sanctuary Tent City leaders advocated for a harm reduction approach to the question of fire safety that takes into account the varied risks associated with homelessness. As Rory said, “Fire isn’t the only risk we face.” The City of Surrey eventually backed down, but campers know the fight is not over. “They already have it in their heads they don’t want us here,” said camp resident Dave Rollins. “When the Deputy Fire Chief, Mark Griffioen, visited Sanctuary, he said he had no problem chasing us from camp to camp.” 

For two months, campers have been living in a state of fear and anxiety, knowing that, at any moment, police and bylaw officers might show up, take everything they own, and destroy their home and community. Campers have vowed to fight back. “This is our home, it’s our sanctuary, and we won’t let them take it from us,” said Wanda. Rory agreed, “We’re not moving until we get housing. I’m not talking about shelter beds or modular units. I mean real social housing.” Another camper, Jennifer Rouse, added, “It’s not just about who’s camped here right now. We represent people about to be made homeless, people surviving in shelters, people camped out someplace else. There are more than a thousand homeless people in Surrey. We all need homes.” 

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