Don’t take down my home! Anita Place tent city residents speak out against Maple Ridge’s faux-fire-safety court application to demolish their shelters

The City of Maple Ridge has filed a notice of  application with the BC Supreme Court for orders that would demolish the homes built by Anita Place Tent City residents, which they claim are not compliant with a Provincial Fire Order. Camp residents argue the City’s desired regulations, although in the name of safety, would be put them at greater risk of danger from fire and the elements, and that an injunction would be cynically used by the Mayor to police the camp.

According to a City press release, in the past few months “activity in the camp has included the unauthorized construction of wooden structures, tampering with the electrical systems of the on-site washrooms and the observation of numerous fuel containers on the property. Such activities have been identified by the Maple Ridge Fire Department as creating serious fire and life safety risks on the property.” Maple Ridge mayor Mike Morden says the camp occupants have failed to keep the property fire safe and so the City must now seek court authority to ensure that fire safety standards are complied with. The injunction hearing will be held at BC Supreme Court on January 14th, 2019.

In December, Anita Place Tent City was hit with two separate fires that destroyed two tents. Camp residents say that these fires should not be used to justify what they call the city’s “faux fire order.” Both fires started in tents, not the wood structures that the City wants to demolish, and both were suspicious, one of them an arson set with a gas bomb from outside the camp. The faux fire injunction, campers argue, will make the camp doubly unsafe: inciting further hate against campers, and taking away the wood structures that have proven to be the best protection against fire and the winter elements.

Fire safety compliance: a Municipal weapon of displacement

In both Nanaimo and Saanich, violations of fire safety codes have been used as the main argument in obtaining a court-ordered injunction to dismantle two organized and politically significant encampments: DisconTent City and Camp Namegans. While the City of Maple Ridge is not seeking an injunction to shut down the camp, the court orders it is applying for will have the same effect. If granted, the shelters that residents have built to protect themselves from storms, freezing temperatures and rats, and the community of support they have formed, will be destroyed in the middle of winter.

Anita Place began 20 months ago as a collective response to the homelessness and housing crisis in Maple Ridge. It was an organized refusal to be displaced and scattered when the low-barrier shelter was closed in May 2017. From the beginning, the City has been trying to shut it down using a variety of hostile tactics: bylaw officer raids, court injunctions, fire orders,  and regular, intimidating fire department and police visits. It has also made the daily challenge of survival for the residents of Anita Place considerably more difficult by blocking essential resources from the camp and refusing to improve fire safety on realistic terms for residents.

To long-time residents of Anita Place, the City’s concern with their safety smacks of hypocrisy. “They’re not concerned with our safety,” says Dwayne. “If they were, the fire alarms would be working in the bathrooms, we’d have lights so we could walk safely, and there would be wheelchair ramps. If anything goes wrong here, we take care of it ourselves, and they come later and take credit for it.” Repeated requests by campers for meetings with the City and its Fire Department to discuss what kinds of heating options would be safe to use have been constantly met with silence. Dwayne says, “They tell us what we can’t have but they can’t tell us what we can have. If you can’t tell us what we can have, what’s the good of you anyways.”

Fire Safety Compliance will put lives at risk

The City’s “grave concern” with fire safety has come to focus on three areas: wooden structures, electricity and sources of heat. For residents, these are essential to survival. Heat and light make it possible to fend off the freezing temperatures and long darkness of winter that homeless people are forced to contend with every day. And the very structures the City wants to remove protect residents from storms, rain, floods, and rodents.

Justin, who has lived in tent city since nearly the beginning, recounts recent occasions when the camp had to deal with a hailstorm and flash flood, and a near-record windstorm. “When the flood swept through here entire tents were washed away, people were swimming in the water trying to save their things. What few wooden structures we had built at that time were the only shelters to actually survive.”

Just this past week, high velocity winds wreaked havoc across Vancouver Island and the lower mainland. Near Duncan, a tree fell on a tent where homeless people were staying killing one person and seriously injuring two others. At Anita Place, the top of a tree broke off and crashed down onto a couple of structures. A large branch came through the roof and wooden flooring of one structure, impaling itself in the ground with significant force. A portion of the trunk fell onto another tent where a couple were sleeping. Luckily for them, they had made a wooden roof frame with plywood sheeting over their tent which shielded them from the falling tree. Justin explains, “If that had been a tent with no structure there, that would have been two dead people. That would have been the government’s fault for not building the housing we need, that would have been the City’s fault for not allowing us to build wood structures. We’ve been asking for permission to build to protect ourselves, we’ve been pushing for this since Anita Place opened and they’ve refused it over and over again based on fire safety rules which I believe are a load of bullshit.”

Fire dangers heightened by stigma and government regulation

On the evening of December 9th, Anita Place tent city residents heard an explosion, immediately followed by the sound of tires screeching away. An empty tent on the south end of camp caught fire and burned to the ground. Thankfully, no one was hurt.

Camp Council member Dwayne Martin immediately ran over with a fire extinguisher, but the flames were too large. Residents called 911. When the fire department arrived, Dwayne went to meet them. Before even exiting the fire truck, Chief Exner said, “I told you this would happen.” Dwayne says he felt like the Fire Chief made up his mind about the cause of the fire without investigating. “He says in the media that the fire department is investigating, but we haven’t seen him here since the fire,” Dwayne said. “I told him I heard a car screech away but he’s never come back here to ask me about it, so I don’t know what kind of investigation this is.”

Then, early in the morning on Saturday December 29th, a fire started in another tent and burned it to the ground. This time there was a woman asleep inside. She was woken and helped out of the fire by neighbours who rushed to put it out, called 911, and stopped it from spreading to neighbouring tents. Steven, a resident of the burned tent said that at 4am he was up with a propane heater going and a candle lit. “It was nice and warm so I am one-hundred-percent sure I blew out the candle and turned off the heater before I went out for a walk,” he said. He said it was a mystery to him how the fire started. As far as he knew, the Fire Chief has not investigated the cause.

Propane heaters and candles are banned by the Fire Order that the City hopes to have enforced by the Courts, but banning them would only cause people to use even more dangerous means of keeping warm. Steven’s reasons for using a propane heater and candle are common. He explained, “It gets cold and with the rain we get wet and the air is damp and we need to get dry. Without heat, my place gets mouldy quick. It gets wet and the damp gets into everything. My blankets get green with mold and slime. It’s gross. The rats get into it more too and things get ruined. You can’t breathe in it. There’s no fresh air. Heat is really important.”

Steven says he worries about what would have happened if he didn’t have friends around in the tent city rather than hidden on their own out in the bush. Steven says, “My neighbour brought my girlfriend to the warming tent and he peeled the burning tarp plastic off her feet. I tried to go into the tent to save our belongings but the fire was too hot. We lost everything. But we survived and no one else was hurt; that’s what counts.”

Housing and Resources, not Criminalization

Anita Place is a remarkable community of support and care for unhoused and precariously housed people in Maple Ridge, and a site of collective struggle. Residents want to make sure everyone is safe, and have done their best to comply with fire regulations. Pete is a longtime member of the camp council; he says, “The people here are a community and we want to be a part of the larger community; but we are down here to protect ourselves and take care of ourselves because we have nowhere else to go. As hard as it is to comply with these rules, we do try our best.” But the compliance that the City is seeking puts people at risk. “Is compliance asking me to make my friends freeze at night?” asks Pete. “They tell us to pull down our structures, but that reduces us to a dangerous position.”

There is something deeply sinister about the City’s alleged concern over the health and safety of the residents of Anita Place. Compliance would mean that people would have to live through the storms and cold of winter in one small tent, one tarp, no heat, no electricity, and no protection. As Justin says,  “So you’ve got to see the hypocrisy in the whole thing. It’s a biased decision made by the City to remove us from here. The first step is to take down our structures, next step is … who knows. That’s what they’re pushing for and it’s not going to stand.”

Residents have fought to survive, to protect themselves and provide safety for one another, in the midst of floods, hail storms, freezing temperatures, poverty, hunger, rats, Ridgelantes and hostile government actions. The City wants to control and ultimately dismantle the organized and collectively powerful encampment of homeless people at Anita Place, but that isn’t going to happen until the housing demands voiced by the residents are met. They have repeatedly stated what is needed: adequate, secure, resident-controlled, social housing, for everyone at Anita Place and all those who are unhoused in Maple Ridge. And while they fight for that, they need basic resources to survive the conditions that put their lives at risk.

As for the City’s move to take down the tent city through court ordered compliance to fire safety regulations, the residents are preparing to defend their homes before the Supreme Court where they will be represented by Pivot Legal Society. “I’m going to fight; no one is taking down my home,” says Dwayne. And Justin echoes this sentiment: “We’re not going to stand for it; these structures are going to stay. This is our life and we’re going to fight for it.”