Camp on the run

Op-eds Opinions

Namegans Nation and the case for community

File Graphic by Emily Thiessen.

While the socioeconomic causes of homelessness are well understood, victims are still blamed as if they caused the problem themselves.

Countless solutions have been shot down with the familiar refrain: Not In My Back Yard! — even though our current punitive ‘solutions’ cost taxpayers more than structural solutions that could actually foster real change.

In 2016 it was Super Intent City, while this year it is Discontent City and Camp Namegans (Salish for ‘We are all One’). What started out as a prayer vigil for recently deceased homeless people quickly grew to a population of 120 at its peak in Regina Park in Saanich. The camp’s message and mandate evolved as reactions from the public became increasingly polarized, settling finally on ‘nowhere to go.’

After five months, the encampment received a court injunction to observe the 7 p.m. to 9 a.m. Saanich bylaw for temporary overnight sheltering — essentially telling them they could no longer sleep at this location. The camp then moved to nearby Rudd Park and a day later to Ravine Park, a traffic island on the corner of Carey Road and Ravine Way, owned by the Department of Transportation.

This move from municipal to provincial land prompted campers to change their name to Namegans Nation, claiming to be the “first urban reserve in British Columbia.” Saanich police were quick to issue a trespass notice on behalf of the B.C. Department of Transportation ordering the campers to vacate the property.

The campers’ strongest critics are still their fellow citizens.

The notice was issued on Sept. 15, and three days later, Namegans Nation left the camp under the supervision of Saanich police.

A Facebook post from the camp’s page responding to the eviction read: “Displacing homeless people from one location to another using police force is not the solution. Housing is the solution. Tent cities exist because people have nowhere to go.”

Namegans Nation then drafted and returned an altered version of the trespass notice to the Department of Transportation declaring the Camp a sovereign nation, and that instead of trespassing on the Province’s land, the Province was trespassing on theirs.

Richard Atwell, former mayor of Saanich, countered this show of defiance, saying “it’s not the time anymore for political protest, it’s time to obey the courts,” while View Royal mayor David Screech said that Camp Namegans had run its course.

Despite these statements, the camp continues to occupy a near legendary status in the Capital Regional District. Their greatest success thus far being a two-week stay at Goldstream Park, where they garnered the support of the B.C. Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, along with non-profit partners, to open winter shelters a couple of months early and distribute rent supplements to people looking for housing in the private market.

The campers’ strongest critics are still their fellow citizens. Many express sympathy while condemning them as criminal, lazy, and dangerous, as if it could be both ways.

After what some might call their two-week vacation at Goldstream, Saanich mayoral candidate David Shebib invited the camp to move to his place (that he was renting) on West Saanich Road. The decision, however, was not Shebib’s to make. Upon learning of the camp’s sudden arrival, the owner of the property, Sam Seera, vowed to evict everyone, current tenants included.

The camp has demonstrated that while it is easy to ignore an individual, it is harder to ignore a group of individuals.

But when presented with the humanitarian nature of the circumstances, Seera’s reaction changed. Instead of evicting his tenants, he gave the campers a grace period, saying that upon further consideration, these were people, not criminals.

The campers may be standing on shaky legal ground, but considering the difficulty an entire municipality had with evicting them, imagine how hard it would have been for Seera, a private homeowner.

At the end of the day, all you can say is, “how can I help?” which is exactly what Seera did, going so far as to fund the campers’ next move with $1 250 worth of supplies, including a U-Haul, a port-a-potty, and food.

Since then, the camp has been evicted from four more locations, and have been left to wander the CRD in search of a home, entering the environs of Uplands in Oak Bay, eventually settling on the former Creating Homefulness Society at Woodwynn Farms in Central Saanich.

The farm was closed earlier this year after being served a ‘no occupancy order’ for being in violation of an Agricultural Land Commission policy that prohibited the use of agricultural land for housing. Following the farm’s foreclosure, the land at Woodwynn Farms was acquired by the Provincial Rental Housing Corporation, administered by B.C. Housing, who plans on repurposing the land as a therapeutic recovery community for people living off-site.

In order to gain access to the farm, the campers had to remove a gate, making their presence a case of breaking-and-entering instead of mere trespassing. Police responded, and several of the campers were charged with mischief before being quickly released.

At time of writing, the campers have moved to the Central Saanich Public Works Yard on Keating Cross Road. But as precedent has shown, it will be only a matter of time before what is left of the camp is forced to disperse from this location as well.

It’s hard to say whether the events of the last year would be deemed successful for the inhabitants of Camp Namegans. Rather, it seems like a case of one step forward, one step back. And whatever the outcome, it’s better than losing their community, which is the only thing keeping their own, individual stories alive.

The camp has demonstrated that while it is easy to ignore an individual, it is harder to ignore a group of individuals. Even with the vitriol spouted at them from the public, the campers are holding their ground — even when they have no ground of their own.