Social workers and supportive housing won’t break Anita Place

Residents of Anita Place Tent City respond to BC Housing’s announcement of plans to build 55 units of supportive housing in Maple Ridge saying the plan is not enough and too institutional.

MAPLE RIDGE, UNCEDED KWANTLEN AND KATZIE TERRITORY: On Tuesday March 5th, the Province of British Columbia announced that they have bought a plot of land on Royal Crescent and Lougheed Highway for up to 55 units of supportive housing. The Province says they will conduct information and consultation sessions about the design of the building. Because the building will be temporary, the lot will not be subject to a City rezoning process. Residents of Anita Place tent city held a meeting to draft a collective response to these new housing resources that they have managed to win out of their fight against homelessness.

The first point that Anita Place residents want to make is that this new housing is a result of the fight they have been leading for 10 months. “It’s proof that homeless people only get anything out of the government when we fight back and make our struggles visible and a social issue,” said Dwayne Martin, a resident of Anita Place since camp began in May 2017.

When BC Housing first announced they would build modular housing – a demand first put forward by Anita Place in June 2017 and adopted without credit by the NDP Government – they said it would be “work camp style” shelters, not the purpose-built modular housing showcased in Vancouver. Anita Place campers publicly refused these shelter trailers. Joe, a long-time resident, said, “I’m glad it’s not just the work camp trailers that they said they would use. I’m glad it’s Vancouver-style modular housing.” Anita Place has been a lever for change and has been winning resources for homeless and low-income people in Maple Ridge that other, less organized and vocal communities are denied.

Campers also celebrate that BC Housing has bought land for housing without going through public consultation with anti-homeless bigots. Housing and other survival resources for low-income people and others vulnerable to violence should not be subject to hateful public opinions.

That is where Anita Place’s celebrations of BC Housing’s announcement ends. Anita Place tent city’s response to the BC Housing announcement of 55 units of supportive housing is focused on the soft-institutional part of the housing. As Sandy Beach, a resident and camp leader said, “These agencies take control over our lives but we’re just a statistic, a funding deliverable for them. They give us an ultimatum – give up your rights to us or stay homeless. We’re saying no.”

No right to housing and no tenancy rights for the poor

The housing and homelessness crisis in British Columbia has shut thousands of people out of housing. John, a recent camp resident explained the two ways that the private rental market excludes low-income people: by pricing them out and by discrimination. “I worked at AirCare for 10 years. I rented a place in Maple Ridge that whole time until AirCare closed down,” he said.

I was making rent but the landlord raised the rent from $1,000 to $1,800 a month and I couldn’t pay that and he evicted me. The bailiffs came and threw all my stuff out in the streets. I used to have no problem getting by but now rents are too much. There’s no way I can afford to pay rent by myself, I have to have a roommate and the landlords won’t rent to us as roommates. For awhile I lived in my truck but then the Ridgilantes told me to get out of their neighbourhood and smashed all my windows. I can’t afford to fix them so I just abandoned it. Now I’m living in Anita Place.

When the BC Liberals began rolling back regular funding for social housing, BC Housing began replacing tax-based public investments with never-ending rent subsidies to landlords. One woman, who we are keeping anonymous, explained how rent subsidy programs have meant that homeless people have exchanged temporary, insecure housing for tenant rights. She explained:

I took a rent subsidy from Rain City and they lied to me. I got a place to live and it was going good, but as soon as something went wrong they didn’t back me up, they worked with the landlord to evict me. They forced me to sign an agreement to move out and said I couldn’t use my right to fight my eviction. They decided to get me out so they could hold onto the lease and use it for someone else. The social workers brought RCMP officers while they changed the lock on the door, and wouldn’t let me get my things. The agency’s relationship with the landlord is more important than my rights.

The other BC Liberal legacy in BC Housing policy is the invention of “supportive” housing. Supports sound good, but supportive housing is actually a legal redefinition of housing that strips residents of rights and introduces surveillance into the apartments of the poor, wrapping them in 24 hour staffing outside of any legal frameworks of accountability or rights. Dwayne, a founder and resident of Anita Place explained:

They said they shut down Riverview because institutions are no good for people with mental illnesses, but now they’re franchising Riverview and calling it housing. In order to get housing they force you to sign your rights away and move into a mini-Riverview. Non-profits sound great but they’re not – the non-profits are the ones who take away our rights, they’re the ones who hospitalize us, who treat us like we’re addicts and not people.

Xylah, a 10-month long resident of the camp, spoke against the myth that low-income and homeless people are not capable of running their own lives.

I think it’s an insult about my ability to live. I live in a tent! I think I know about life skills! Living in a tent requires ten times more life skills than living in a house. I live here without water, warmth, or electricity. You try living like this and then tell me I need life skills.

Sandy, a camp resident and leader said that, based on her experiences with social workers in shelters and around Anita Place, she does not trust them. She said:

Non-profits are nothing but paid rats. They come here to camp and scope us out, they’re paid informants – the non-profits are rats. I’m supposed to trust my stuff, my housing, my life to rats? Go fuck yourself.

Under the housing and homelessness crisis in BC, low income people are made homeless by private market forces and stripped of rights by punitive government programs that treat poverty as the fault of the poor. And the number of punitive housing units that the government is offering is inadequate. Sandy explained that there are 200 homeless people in and around Anita Place so, “55 units means that someone is going to pick and choose who is going to move into housing and who is going to stay outside. We don’t accept that choice.” Residents of Anita Place are victims of the housing market crisis, and the government supportive housing project on Royal Crescent will punish and contain them for being poor.

Anita Place model: the housing and world we need

So if not market rentals, housing supplements, or supportive housing – what are campers at Anita Place fighting for? Anita Place has repeatedly released designs for housing drawn by residents: for 200 units of resident-controlled social housing, a peer run low-income community space, health clinic, women’s centre, community kitchen, and shelter. Ten months into the existence of the camp, it is clear that Anita Place itself is a model low-income housing and community space.

Sandy said the government does not recognize the skills that homeless people have as workers and contributors to their community, instead criminalizing them.

They are putting a request for non-profits to manage the building; why don’t they ask us? None of them ask what we want, what we can do for ourselves, what we can give. We’re not children in need of care. He’s a machinist, I’m a roofer, he does flooring. Social workers treat us like we are problems and everything we do is used against us. Housed people cause problems and they get treated as individuals who are causing problems; homeless people get treated as a problem no matter what we do as individuals. They lump us all in as one.

Jag, a more recent, elderly resident, said that campers taking on responsibilities for maintenance and each other is what brings the community to life. He said:

Here at Anita Place we have responsibilities, we share them. We are human beings and we need to take responsibilities. We have done that here. They want to put us under the control of social workers and that will take away our humanity.

Although there have been opioid overdoses at Anita Place, campers have saved each other’s lives every time. Anita Place has been a sanctuary in the midst of an overdose crisis. Sandy explained that splitting up people into private rooms without harm reduction health services will rob the community of this sanctuary. She said:

We have to face the facts that people are using down and they’re going to keep using down. People want to stop but they won’t get to stop if they die. If they open housing where we’re put into rooms where we are cut off from our friends and community who save our lives, we’re setting up a situation where people are going to die.

Anita Place residents are fighting against the government ultimatum that homeless people must choose between staying homeless or submitting to the control of social workers in supportive housing or rent subsidy programs. The housing they are fighting for continues the community organization and power they have established against all odds.

Xylah said, “Whenever I get home I hear my neighbour Dwayne shout out, “Xylah?” He’s just checking to make sure it’s me and I’m okay. What other neighbours check in on women who live alone like that?” Breaking up the camp to go into supportive housing will break that neighbourly solidarity. Dwayne argued that this solidarity has political implications. “The government wants to break up our camp because we are a community that looks after each other and fights for each other,” he said. “We get together and talk about things, we are critical and we fight back. They don’t want our example to spread.”

Supportive housing in Maple Ridge is not good enough because Anita Place residents won’t abandon each other to permanent homelessness, to isolation and overdose death in institutionalized housing units. Anita Place residents won’t dissolve the camp into supportive housing control and isolation because residents remain committed to their fight for homes and for justice.