“Enlarged Citizenship” in Coleman Country – The failure of BC Housing creates tent cities where homeless people are building their own power

By Ashley Mollison and Ivan Drury

Originally published in The Volcano

“Enlarged Citizenship” in Coleman Country – The failure of BC Housing creates tent cities where homeless people are building their own power

We acknowledge the unceded Lekwungen Territories on which Super InTent City stands and thank the people who shared their stories for this article.

Forty tents set up on the Victoria courthouse lawn surround a sacred fire, open kitchen, and supply tent. Within its first three months, over a hundred people have made this tent city home. The result of daily displacement and criminalization of homeless people and the failure of government programs that are supposed to help the homeless, the place residents call “Super In Tent City” symbolizes the power of homeless people to manage their own homes and lives.

People began arriving at the courthouse lawn in October 2015 after discovering that the land was provincial and not subject to Victoria’s bylaws that limit camping hours in parks to 7pm-7am. Victoria’s bylaws allowing limited homeless camping in parks were set up after the BC Supreme Court’s “Adam’s Decision” found that in absence of other shelter options, bylaws barring sleeping in parks violated homeless peoples’ Charter rights. But many homeless people find the hourly limit on camping means more police harassment. A man who calls himself “Satan” was one of the first people to set up camp on the courthouse lawn. He explained that enforcement of the camping bylaw pushed him to the camp. “I am staying at the camp to avoid cops and bylaw waking me up all the time,” he said. “I don’t have a home. They jack my stuff. Even if I lock it up, my locks are cut; they take my trailers. They don’t give me all my shit back; they only give some of it back.” This story is common: many campers say police and bylaw officers have harassed them out of parks and into the tent city.

But why are people sleeping in parks at all? More immediate than the capitalist and colonial causes of poverty is the failure of government policies that are supposed to stop low-income people from sleeping on the streets. In recent years, BC Housing has abandoned building social housing, which was traditionally their main technique of stopping homelessness. Instead, in partnership with other levels of government and with private industry, BC Housing has focused on three strategies: shelters, rent supplements, and supportive housing. The testimonials of those at the Super In Tent City show that they have fallen through the cracks of these programs and that the government is failing to permanently house many homeless people.

BC Housing’s failure leads to tent cities

Provincial housing Minister Rich Coleman’s first attempt to lure tent city residents out of the camp was through the offer of a temporary homeless shelter. But, at a rally and news conference they organized in reply to the Minister’s offer, residents of the camp replied that the four-month long, forty-bed shelter would “solve the Province’s tent city problem, not homeless peoples’ homelessness problem.” According to Clay Raymond, a resident at the camp, “Shelters are a temporary fix. That money should have been directed at building more housing and refurbishing old structures – inject that $400,000 into housing. $400,000 for babysitters? That’s ridiculous.” Others argued that the shelter resources offered were inadequate. For example, there was only space for forty people, but there were over a hundred at the tent city. But Super In Tent City residents focused on a more fundamental critique: they do not accept shelters as an alternative to decent, dignified housing. BC Housing’s investment in shelters rather than housing has pushed people into tent cities.

BC Housing’s reliance on rent supplements instead of building new social housing doesn’t make sense in Victoria. The current vacancy rate in Victoria is 0.6%, and 0.0% where rents are cheaper like Esquimalt. This puts the power in the hands of landlords to pick and choose tenants. People at the tent city say it is impossible to find market housing they can afford (even with a rent supplement) and that allows pets, couples, and doesn’t discriminate against them. Someone on welfare with a rent supplement (of $200) has about $575 to spend on rent, but CMHC estimates the average rent in Victoria at more than $715/month for a bachelor suite and $855/month for a one-bedroom. Rent supplements are also time-limited and subject to review, so even if someone is moved out of the tent city into a rent subsidized private apartment, their support will run out, or be reduced or cut off, pushing them back into a tent city, parks, or doorways.

Supportive housing seems the most similar to previous social housing models, but its institutional feeling makes it fail where simple, affordable apartments successfully housed people for decades. Kim’s experience of moving from being on the street for a decade to a supportive housing unit is a common one. “What’s not really fair is that I was forced into taking this low-income housing,” she says. “I cried when I moved in. To me it’s like a jail. I can’t have my grandkids over because my granddaughter is only eighteen.” Kim is always at the tent city where her son lives in a tent. She was frustrated that she couldn’t have her son over at her place. Even when “it’s cold and raining and he’s deadly sick with the flu, I couldn’t even let him stay one night! Can you imagine me asking my son to leave at midnight knowing it’s raining and he’s sick and has no blankets? Nobody can do it! But it’s either that or get kicked out.” Rather than sit at home lonely while her son is living in a tent, the institutional rules of supportive housing have pushed her to the tent city.

The “Enlarged Citizenship” of Super In Tent City

In the late 1970s, the Detroit-based Black radical activist James Boggs called for communities to build “new and enlarged citizenship” as ways to take power over our own lives while we fight for a better world. He imagined spaces where everyday people could “participate in continuous and meaningful decision making” to develop “social and political responsibility,” consciousness, and organizational experience. Against the three BC Housing strategies to break up low-income communities — institutionalize, control, and hide them away — Super In Tent City is an example of this “enlarged citizenship;” it is a place where low-income people are gaining political experience, developing a vision of the sort of housing (and world) they want to live in, and demonstrating their expertise in running their own lives.

People have stayed in the camp of necessity, but also because of the safety and community they have created. Anna McBee says that women in the street community have found safety in a self-organized space. “We can resolve our own issues when there are more of us and we can deal with them more fairly,” she says. “We can take into consideration our own capabilities and downfalls. The staff and police – no one is prepared to deal with the level of problems that we are finding ourselves in these days.”

Many have larger social justice goals. According to Clay, “People maybe don’t identify the problem – how big it is – until they see how big it is.” POJO sees the opportunity in the camp to expose a sick system. He says, “I was institutionalized all my life. No-one encouraged me to change or grow up – they just kept bringing me back to jail.” He wants to use his experiences to make a difference in the lives of others: “I want to help change the world to a better place for those kids out there so they don’t fucking die out there.” He sees the tent city as a potential “place of refuge for those street kids that they can have their own little place and no-one will fuck with them because we will look after them and they are under our wings. We care for our own.”

Different people have different answers about what kind of housing they want. Some, having experienced its institutional “supportive housing” variant, are disillusioned with the idea of social housing. They want the government to give them a plot of land where they can self-organize a permanent tent city like homeless people run in Portland, Oregon. Kim, who is newer to the experience of living inside, is representative of those who want an apartment. When asked what her “dream home” would be, if anything were possible, she said, “My dream? A nice warm place with all utilities included! Cable, a phone! Cheap, what we can afford, a third of what we get, not all of it, not seventy-five percent of it so that we starve and we have to go to a place like the Mustard Seed where the stuff is outdated. My dream is to have my kids at my house for Christmas and my grandkids too.”

Super InTent City represents the power of people in coming together to resist displacement and the criminalization of low-income people. The Super In Tent City leadership rejects the false solutions of rent supplements, institutional housing, and shelters, and is building a movement for housing and against displacement as a site of people’s power.