How Efforts To Crush A Tent City Produced An Enduring Record Of Their Value

green space on a street corner in Victoria, British Columbia
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850 Burdett Avenue in Victoria British Columbia, site of Super InTent City in 2015-6.

People who experience homelessness have a lot to contend with. Where will they go to eat, sleep, get clean, do laundry? With these basics up in the air, it’s understandable that people who are homeless may choose not to talk about what needs to change about the system they are navigating. Nevertheless, being on the receiving end of homelessness services, they have intimate knowledge of what works and what doesn’t.

Where will they go for . . . life’s basics? These “where” questions would likely have been top of mind for homeless people sleeping outside in Victoria, British Columbia in 2015. But that changed when Super InTent City was set up.

What is/was Super InTent City?

Very briefly, it started in 2015. The City of Victoria, British Columbia’s capital — required anyone sleeping outside to clear up all their possessions by 7 a.m. The rule didn’t apply at Super InTent City because it was situated on provincially owned land over which the City had no control.

As it turned out, this was no clever legal gambit by the province designed to get around city restrictions. The province didn’t want the encampment! It seems like it just ‘happened’ at a particular place and time, thanks to some enterprising homeless folks. There was no no official blessing from the city or the province.

The province tried to get rid of Super InTent City, but its first effort wasn’t successful. When the provincial government sought an injunction to remove the encampment, a Judge ruled that the encampment could continue. In April 2016, he said:

“I need to be satisfied there is accommodation that enables people to address their health issues. . . . If someone is drug-addicted and they are being forced to go somewhere that can’t accommodate their health issue, it’s not really much of an option. . . . . . The tent city on the lawn of the Victoria courthouse will remain in place for now.”

By July, the same Judge ruled that Super InTent City should close. This time, he said:

“I have come to the conclusion that the encampment is unsafe for those living there and for the neighbouring residents and businesses and cannot be permitted to continue.”

You can read this account of the situation at the time when Super InTent City was closing down. It appeared in the Vancouver Sun: Shut down of Victoria homeless camp puts spotlight on poverty, activist says

While the fate of Super InTent City hung in the balance, 33 of its residents contributed evidence to the court through sworn affidavits. Two researchers at the University of Victoria obtained permission to read and analyse the affidavits. Although Super InTent City is long gone, the affidavits are proving to be a treasure trove of front line knowledge of the homelessness service system. What works and what doesn’t? An article that gives voice to the affidavits has just been published in the International Journal on Homelessness.

What is in these affidavits?

The article includes dozens of direct quotes from the affidavits. The researchers organized the comments into four themes:

    1. Systemic failures in the homelessness sector
    2. Chained to a backpack and running out of places to go
    3. Forced to be a community
    4. Precarious stability

With respect to the first theme, systemic failures in the homelessness sector, Super Intent City residents spoke about how the homeless service sector contributed to homelessness. In the affidavits, they talked about the rules at emergency shelters (e.g. no pets) and in permanent supported housing (e.g. no visitors), which cut them off from critical social support. As well, although they have a roof over their head in a shelter or permanent supported housing, residents live with the constant knowledge/worry/prospect that their housing or service provider will throw them out.

In comparison, Super Intent City offered the prospect of maintaining existing supports (from partners, pets and friends). When offered other options, people living at Super InTent City might have chosen to live elsewhere, but those options simply didn’t exist.

Super Intent City residents also commented on the precarious stability (the fouth theme) of NOT having to clear out of their sleeping space by 7 every morning. One resident described how the sense of stability at Super Intent City (despite the ongoing court cases) affected their outlook and what they were able to do:

“Now that I am staying here, I am better able to plan and keep appointments. I am better able to take care of my health now that I am staying here. I see this in others also. When people are not concerned about survival and finding a place to stay, we are able to work on our lives.”

This post has spoken briefly about two of the themes in the affidavits: the article discusses all four in detail. The article is well timed to contribute experience-based knowledge to debates about clearing encampments which are taking place in many communities. You can read the full article in the International Journal on Homelessness: ‘Forced to Become a Community’: Encampment Residents’ Perspectives on Systemic Failures, Precarity, and Constrained Choice