Tent city defies eviction notice

Super InTent City residents raise their fists in solidarity and protest of the government's eviction notice. Photo by Sarah Lazin

Super InTent City residents raise their fists in solidarity and protest of the government’s eviction notice. Photo by Sarah Lazin

Homeless campers in Victoria were officially evicted from their tent settlement behind the courthouse as of Thursday, Feb. 25. But days later, Super InTent City is still standing, with no indication that more than a couple of campers have left.

Residents of Victoria’s Super InTent City were issued eviction notices on Feb. 5, giving them 20 days to vacate the property and seek relocation at one of 88 new temporary rental units and shelters.

However, on Thursday afternoon, the City threw a block party to tell the public — and the government — that they aren’t going anywhere without a fight.

Balanced on a stage made of a plastic crate and a sheet of plywood, 15 speakers got up one by one to speak to their own homeless experience, not only representing Super InTent City, but other homeless communities throughout B.C. as well as various indigenous communities and advocacy organizations.

Each speaker identified themselves with a first name or nickname, often using a community in place of a surname. The themes of community and solidarity were particularly prevalent; Amanda from Montreal who calls B.C. home, spoke of the “unconditional love [and] unconditional acceptance” she has found in the City.

Some speakers focused on sharing their solutions to this “urban displacement crisis,” calling for everything from supportive housing to micro housing with self-governing capacities, to self-determined tent cities erected permanently on crown or municipal land.

Others, such as CJ, who has called Super InTent City home for three months, wanted to know why the government refuses to speak with them.

“We’ve been asking the province to come and meet us in a conversation, a conversation they haven’t joined in three, four, five months,” he said. “Instead of permanent solutions, they’ve given us shelters. We don’t need shelters. We’ve actually built a few of our own — if you look around, they’re pretty awesome, actually.”

“We have found a solution — it’s called community,” he added.

After the excitement of the block party died down, eviction day came to an uneventful end and dozens of tents were still standing. And it is likely they will continue to do so, says Kelly Newhook, the Executive Director of the Together Against Poverty Society (TAPS), until the province decides to file a formal injunction against the campers. Even then, they do not have to leave until the court upholds that injunction.

While receiving word of the eviction notice did not come as a surprise to many, Newhook calls the way in which the notice came “unfortunate and disheartening.”

TAPS wrote to the province a number of times before the eviction notice was distributed, calling for consultation with those living in the tent city.

“That morning, [the government] said they came to ‘listen,’ yet they had already printed out the eviction notice,” said Newhook.

“When you’re saying you’re listening at that point, it’s very disingenuous … don’t know how they expected any other reaction from the homeless people. They [the homeless] felt very disrespected and like their opinion doesn’t matter.”

Newhook estimates there are around 120 campers living in Super InTent City alone, and early numbers from Feb. 10’s Point in Time Count on homeless demographics, which Newhook believes will be low, outline at least 253 people who call the streets of Victoria home.

The province funded the creation of 88 new temporary housing units to meet the need for housing expressed by tent city residents. However, the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness estimated in Oct. 2015 that 367 units of supportive housing would be required to meet the needs of Victoria’s homeless.

“The numbers don’t add up,” Newhook said. “There are no options to go to. So why are they choosing to stay? Well, where are they going to go?”

At its core, the issue of homelessness in Victoria is no different from anywhere else in Canada, said Mayor Lisa Helps.

“[We have seen] an increase in homelessness over the last 20 years, since the federal government started cutting back its funding of affordable housing,” she said. “In 1989, the federal government contributed $114 per Canadian on affordable housing and by 2014, the federal government was submitting $58 per Canadian on affordable housing, and at the same time, the population of Canada grew by 30 per cent.”

As necessary funding continues to fall short, long-term housing options become less realistic.

Furthermore, many view temporary housing solutions as just that — a temporary, Band-Aid fix. Karen Maxwell, an advocate for the homeless, estimates investing in preventative housing would eliminate 50 to 60 per cent of people on the street.

Maxwell says that giving homeless people just enough so that they are forced to rely on services does not provide them with any degree of security or stability.

“A good portion of social services who deal in the homeless realm who service the homeless are doing just that and consequently perpetuating it.”

It’s not just a broken system, she says, but a systemically flawed system that was built incorrectly to begin with, and continues to maintain cycles of dependency.

“We’re the only province in the entire country that does not have a poverty reduction strategy, so we’re not measuring poverty, we’re not seeking solutions and trying to improve the situation,” Newhook added. “This government, this province is not interested.”

While the chants of “House us, don’t hide us, build homes now” which rang out at the block party have since died down, the sentiment remains a top priority for many within Victoria’s homeless and advocacy communities. How the provincial and federal governments choose to respond, however, remains to be seen.

Update: The provincial government has filed for an injunction, citing trespassing and public health concerns. If the injunction passes, the police will be authorised to arrest all those who remain in the tent city after March 14. The Martlet will follow this story as it progresses.   

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