Abolish “the homeless” from autonomous working class and Indigenous struggle

The Volcano is publishing a series of excerpts from documents prepared for Red Braid Alliance for Decolonial Socialism‘s 2021 Winter Assembly, where we reflected on our successes and failures in 2020 and articulated visions and strategies for the coming year. Among the strategy documents, there are a number of theoretical pieces that expand on Red Braid’s vision of multiplicity. Find them all here.

Red Braid’s established strategy for organizing with street and subaltern communities is to politicize survival struggles, expanding the limits of solidarity that organically form between and amongst people fighting for their lives against cops and vigilantes. This strategy is an intercommunal gesture that practices a class and decolonial unity between subaltern people globally over and against the seeming commonality of sharing a common geographic location. 

Since 2010, with increasing intention, Red Braid has applied this intercommunal strategy to the tactic of tent cities. During the last term of the long BC Liberal reign of power, as their 16 years of austerity cuts bore the noxious fruit of widespread homelessness, we found that our communities were able to use tent cities as spaces of community self defence and survival as well as political bases for homeless-led struggles for housing. It was a perfect example of what we meant by politicizing survival struggles. 

But the election of the NDP-Green government in 2016 changed this dynamic. After the Liberals were removed from office and the NDP came in we saw a hardening of the law against tent cities. Courts began refusing to compel governments to build housing and granting governments unqualified displacement injunctions. We identified this turn after the court ordered displacements of Discontent City in Nanaimo and Camp Namegans in Saanich in the fall of 2018 and it has only gotten worse since. 

The only cities where it is possible to start and hold a tent city seems to be Vancouver and Victoria, where overdeveloped middle classes posture as moral protectors of the poor and where the politics of property and real estate development make a spectacle out of police displacement of tent cities. In brief, the “progressive” branding of Vancouver and Victoria makes them hesitate about breaking up tent cities without injunctions

It seems certain that, besides in Vancouver and Victoria, for the time being, our tent cities tactic is compromised.

Political problems: The rise of the “front line worker” and the deskilling of social work

The dominant legal/political situation is not the only problem we have with tent cities. Frontline workers have emerged as the face of a new regulatory state apparatus over the new poor. The old professionalized social worker model emphasized discipline, retraining, and rehabilitation of the poor, who were to be sent back to work or maintained as a reserve army of labour. The new, deskilled frontline worker is tasked instead with managing and maintaining the swelling masses of the poor, soothing, soft-surveilling, and advocating for their relative comfort and “rights” while warehousing them eternally as surplus, waste populations. 

The reformer, like the violent poor basher, sees “homeless people” as a group outside society…

Frontline workers anxiously differentiate themselves from other, more violent and disciplinary arms of the state apparatus. They disdain, critique, and denounce their social worker ancestors, and portray themselves as a progressive group, as activists. This new middle class reformer pushes politically against cops and professional social workers as competitors in their quest to gain a bigger portion of government budgets, and out of an earnestly held belief that they, in their condescending benevolence, are in fact best suited to care for, help, regulate, and discipline the poor.

What enables the state to respond so sharply and immediately to attack and displace tent cities is, paradoxically, exactly the politics of the front line worker. It is this middle class reformer that talks about and produces our street kin as a special group, as people who are sick or criminal. The reformer, like the violent poor basher, sees “homeless people” as a group outside society and disconnected from working class and Indigenous struggles, as people who need to be either shut away in supportive housing or locked up in jail. 

Resolution: Invest in subaltern knowledge, consciousness, and leadership 

It is only through the self-activity of subaltern working class and Indigenous people themselves that we, as a movement, can abolish this reactionary social category of “the homeless.” 

The serious challenge for Red Braid, then, is to invest everything in the consciousness, education, and skillset of subaltern leaders. Rather than treat “homeless people” as a group needing special treatment and having distinct “lived experience,” we fight to break the fragmentation of the working class and Indigenous nations through unified struggle. 

Our organizational, tactical, and political problems all come to a common head here. 

Fighting against the myth of “the homeless” and the production of poor, underhoused people as separate means doing education and consciousness-building with homeless people, so that homeless leaders can come to interpret their experiences as being on the losing end of class and decolonial struggles, and to see the inverse potential: that they themselves can be leaders not just of homeless struggles but of working class struggle and Indigenous struggles generally, which homelessness is an aspect of. 

On an organizational and infrastructural level, the implication of these politics is that we should forget about a separate, secondary “homeless people’s campaign.” Instead we should recruit organic community leaders directly into Red Braid where we can carry out leadership development together, closing the gap between the organization and the consciousness and needs of community struggle. There is still an obvious need for independent, open, community campaign groups in different towns, but if we cannot bring the leaders from those spaces into Red Braid then that is a sign that Red Braid is not the political instrument that our communities need. 

Resolution: More diverse tactics for our survival struggle campaigns 

While we may be surprised by a successful tent city when we might not expect it, we should be prepared for heavy handed police attacks on a new camp. While starting a new camp would be great, we can adapt to this climate by thinking of tent cities as part of an overall struggle against the hard and soft power of the state, not in isolation from those other struggles. We should think of tent cities as sites of these struggles against supportive housing, laws, and bylaws; as sites to escalate and springboard those other, ongoing struggles. That also answers the question of dealing with the danger that the state is readying to start using designated tent city sites as outdoor shelters, which is the opposite of ending all anti-poor laws and bylaws.

As long as tent cities are being brutally repressed by police or absorbed as outdoor shelters by frontline workers we will not be able to use them to carry out our strategy of politicizing survival struggles. The alternate survival struggle tool is the one that we have been hesitantly working on and developing: the squat to survive underground. These squats could become places where the differentiation between organizers and community can be broken as Red Braid members can also move into and help organize squats rather than hold ourselves at arm’s length.

Resolution: An afterward on the “10,000 units of social housing” slogan

All these problems leave us with our slogans. We have been using the “build 10,000 units of social housing every year” slogan for years. Since about 2013. But this slogan, in critical ways, falls into the same trap identified above of treating the needs of “homeless people” as separate from the totality of Indigenous nations and the international working class. 

It’s time to revisit the framing of “social housing” around estimates of how many people are homeless.

It’s time to revisit the framing of “social housing” around estimates of how many people are homeless. This framing undermines our argument that homelessness is a field of decolonial and class struggle that must be driven and solved by our communities ourselves, through the direct expropriation, socializing, and decolonization of property. Instead we should fight for universal housing for all working class and Indigenous people in Canada, regardless of citizenship status, so that nobody is homeless, evicted, or forced to live in miserable conditions.

Campaign reflections

“Hothouse Squat” in Surrey, April 1st 2020 (Rana Nu)

Surrey: Self-organization, leadership, and militancy

Red Braid has been holding meetings with the Whalley street community, on and off, since 2016. Over the years we have organized rallies, marches, and press conferences, and published pamphlets and newsletters, to unite our forces against those bent on the displacement, institutionalization, and death of the street community.

The year 2020 was a turning point for the growth of street kin leadership, organization, and militancy in Whalley. Two street community leaders joined Red Braid as members, while others began to identify with Red Braid and are waiting to formally join. We organized two occupations, supported and defended a spontaneous tent city, and helped create the Whalley Street Council.

The Street Council formed in November to manage and run the Whalley People’s Resource Centre as a street-run space, where low-income people help one another survive the everyday violence and degradation of homelessness. While carving out safe spaces in a raging storm is necessary work, we should not retreat from the head-on struggle against our enemies: the politicians, developers, landlords, police, bylaw officers, and social workers that make life miserable and sabotage our potential power.

In 2021, the Street Council resolves to continue organizing demonstrations, occupations, and press conferences, to make itself a political force that can intervene in the world around us and in the course of history. That means the Street Council needs to see itself as a leading force and it needs to be in constant contact with the wider community, including through the Whalley Centre and, as one Council member said, through “feet on the street, distributing pamphlets, getting out the word.”

Maple Ridge: From a wheel to a rhizome

Since the closure of Anita Place in 2019, it hasn’t worked to rely on weekly meetings as the hub of our organizing. We are able to draw people together to plan one-off actions, but bringing people into organizing work through the regular rhythm of weekly meetings has been a challenge. At our pre-assembly meeting, we decided to shift to a different, more “rhizomatic” organizing model, in which we rely on the Red Braid members and leaders in street kin spaces to be the hubs of our campaign. Once we recognized that our investment in supporting subaltern leadership has led to an influx of organic leaders in our group, the weekly campaign meeting suddenly felt outmoded.

In place of weekly open-invite meetings, our weekly meetings will be for street kin members and leaders who are interested in taking on organizing work. We’ll tell people to bring their problems to our street kin leaders so that we can help organize and articulate solutions to them. For outreach, we’ll continue publishing our newsletter, Anita’s News, and also launch a survey to learn about people’s experiences with housing and shelter.

Our resolutions for 2021 are to: grow a squat to survive underground, launch an abolish supportive housing campaign, and pick up our OPS work, since our last effort in 2019 to set up an OPS in Maple Ridge was immediately shut down by the police.

“Stewart Squat” in Vancouver, April 18th 2020

Downtown Eastside: Building independent institutions 

In 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Red Braid received a call from an Oppenheimer Park resident and another DTES community member, who asked for help to start a squat. In response, we helped organize meetings, alongside other members of the Our Homes Can’t Wait coalition, leading to the short-lived Stewart Squat on April 18th. 

After the Stewart Squat, we continued organizing in the DTES. We supported a group of residents from Oppenheimer to start a new tent city at CRAB Park. When that site was dismantled, Red Braid continued supporting camp at a new site in Strathcona Park, which became known as Camp KT. Our goals at the camp were to support the development of residents’ leadership against ongoing state regulation and help them develop and articulate their own politics and demands. 

Our priority for the next period of organizing is to bring DTES militants into independent institutions, like Our Homes Can’t Wait, where they can better coordinate their struggle. We are seeing Camp KT face growing regulation and imminent displacement by the state, which is an attack on the autonomous power of poor people. The precarious position of Camp KT only drives home the importance of ongoing organisation and independent institutions that are capable of surviving beyond any single tent city struggle.

Eviction Defence Network launches into cross-regional struggle

2020 was a busy year for the Eviction Defence Network, which grew out of Red Braid’s Stop Demovictions Burnaby campaign in the Burnaby neighbourhood of Metrotown. In relaunching as the Eviction Defence Network, we sought to use what we had learned from years of struggle in Metrotown to build a broader movement against evictions, gentrification, and displacement. 

The EDN fights for universal housing: the abolition of market rental housing and “supportive” housing, land back to Indigenous peoples, and a housing system where no one is evicted. But universal housing isn’t just an end goal, it’s also a method. Universal housing means fighting against private property, evictions, and displacement in all their forms. Universal housing is a movement of the evicted to abolish the conditions that make evictions necessary and profitable. 

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