Banning camping will not end homelessness: And addressing other myths about homelessness in Victoria

Alliance Against Displacement statement against motion to ban camping in Reeson Park and Quadra Park in Victoria.

On Thursday, Mayor Lisa Helps and Councillor Margaret Lucas will bring forward a motion to ban overnight sheltering in two City parks – Reeson and Quadra – adding to a growing list of parks in Victoria where homeless people are barred from taking shelter. The ban would be conditional on BC Housing agreeing to either keep two existing mats-on-the-floor seasonal shelters open beyond April 15 or create a similar number of shelter spaces in other locations. Banning people from sheltering in specific outdoor locations does nothing to address homelessness – it only makes public spaces more hostile to poor, racialized, and Indigenous people; deepens the criminalization of poverty; and forces people to shelter farther from survival services located primarily in the downtown core.

The City is attempting to justify the proposed ban by referencing VicPD reports that overnight camping has declined since December. The City frames this decline as an indication that homelessness is being effectively addressed. But the real reason for this momentary decline in camping is that homeless people are being driven out of City parks by police harassment, real estate development, and cold weather. The real motivation behind this motion was alluded to by Councillor Lucas when she suggested that homeowners are disturbed by the “unwelcoming appearance of the park” and the “intrusion of activities onto private property.” This motion is not intended to address homelessness, and it has nothing to do with the health or safety of the people who make use of City parks; its sole motivation is the promotion of middle-class comfort and capitalist profits at the expense of some of the most vulnerable residents of this city.

The City finishes the developer’s job: Legislating displacement at Reeson Park

Last year, Alliance Against Displacement along with SIC Society stood in solidarity against the displacement of homeless people from Reeson park. Our strong opposition to the City’s gentrification plan to redevelop the space for tourists and real estate developers forced the City to scale back the Reeson Park development. The City promised not to disturb the people living at Reeson Park but continued to carry out a practice of police harassment against park residents and the seizure and trashing of personal belongings. Furthermore, construction in the park has created a steep incline, making it impossible for people to continue to camp in that space. Legislating camping out of these parks following a campaign of gentrification and police harassment seals the deal of displacement.

Housing outreach is not housing justice

The Mayor claims the reduction of visible camping in City parks as a victory, praising the Coordinated Housing Outreach Team for “finding shelter or housing for close to twenty persons.” With mainly temporary shelter-mats opened in the same period and no new affordable housing to address the shortage, finding shelter or housing for one person comes at the expense of another. 1,400 people remain homeless in Victoria. In lieu of building affordable and decent housing, this team (comprised of BC Housing, Pacifica Housing, Island Health, Ministry of Social Development, Bylaw Services, and the VicPD) has focused its efforts on breaking encampments, moving people into shelters, and adding names to housing waitlists.

Creating new systems of control under the guise of “meeting people where they’re at” does not address the housing crisis. If the City was legitimately concerned with “meeting people where they are at,” why criminalize individuals who choose to stay in parks over shelters? Everybody knows that welfare rate housing is scarce and many have been on the BC Housing waitlist for years. Victoria’s CASH program (Centralized Access to Supported Housing) is specifically for people who require health supports and does not accept anyone who needs housing solely because they are low income. Until we have a robust, affordable, and appropriate housing stock, housing outreach and referral teams are simply draining resources. The problem is not that people don’t know how to access housing; it’s simply that there isn’t enough affordable, appropriate housing.

Shelters are not homes

The motion recommends this ban on the condition that the Province agrees to keep a number of seasonal shelters open indefinitely. This recommendation undermines the already limited ability of homeless people to decide for themselves where to sleep. While shelters are currently necessary as emergency and temporary measures, they are not for everyone. As we heard from residents of Super InTent City, staying in a shelter can be worse than sleeping in a park or on the streets. Shelters can be sites of violence, surveillance, and control. Often they do not permit people to sleep with their loved ones or keep their belongings and their pets. Staying in a shelter usually means being forced to pack up and leave every morning. Shelters are not homes; they are warehouses where homeless people are given a mat on a floor or, at best, a bunk bed in a crowded room.

This motion seeks to criminalize homeless people for exercising their autonomy and refusing to stay hidden away in shelters. Banning camping in City parks may make homelessness less visible to property owners and tourists, but it will do nothing to help people who are homeless. It will only increase the harm that homeless people experience by escalating police violence and harassment and by driving them out of the city, away from services and community supports, and into the woods and the few other places still left to camp.

By calling on the Province to keep these temporary shelters open indefinitely, Mayor Helps and Councilor Lucas frame homelessness as a normal and permanent reality in this city. For them, the role of government is not to end homelessness, but to keep it hidden from public view. This cynical focus on shelters sidelines what we really need from our government: massive investment in secure, dignified, tenant-run, non-market housing.

It is always only about the interests of private property over homeless people’s lives

In 2008, homeless people won the legal right to take shelter in City parks in the absence of other alternatives. Since then, the City of Victoria has modified the Parks Bylaw to subvert this Supreme Court decision. For instance, in September the City considered an amendment to the Parks Bylaw that would uproot homeless people every 6 hours, forcing them to move in order to “protect vegetation.” While the time limit was not passed, other restrictions were – including the ability for City staff to close a park or part of a park without notice. We are not fooled by Mayor Helps and Councillor Lucas singing the praises of new housing and outreach teams to justify the business-as-usual targeting of people who are forced to live outside. This motion is one more indication that the City of Victoria values private property and making poverty invisible above the lives of those who are forced to sleep in the cold.
Former residents of Super InTent City join in solidarity with Chattel City residents to resist displacement and criminalization

Media reports on Chattel City resistance to displacement:

Credit to the Times Colonist for the photo at the top of the page