Advocacy, leadership, courage: What we learned from Super InTent City
August 12, 2016, 3:30 a.m.: The last tent is coming down from the courthouse lawn on the corner of 850 Burdett Street in Victoria. As the last remaining residents of what was Super InTent City (SIC) peacefully leave the grounds, I experience a moment of great sadness. I reflect on what the last ten months have meant to the people who have made a community here. What solutions have come about as a result of their struggle? And what lessons remain to us – this city, province, and country – in grappling with widespread and growing homelessness?
Victoria is like many cities across Canada in that it is faced with a protracted crisis of homelessness. A crisis with a straightforward remedy: build more housing. Despite the simplicity of the solution, Canadian cities have not been able to stem the tide of homelessness.
A lack of housing and housing options is the overarching problem. And while the solution may be obvious, Victoria, like other Canadian cities, has been unable to make a meaningful difference in confronting this crisis for far too long. SIC changed the intractable nature of the problem here. Now that the tents have all gone, we have a clear view of what has been accomplished by tackling the issue locally, and can look forward with optimism to what we can do more widely in the future.
Tent cities in B.C. are the visible manifestation of failed public policy, decades of disinvestment in social housing, an abysmal social safety net with welfare rates frozen for nearly a decade, and the lowest provincial minimum wage in the country. Together, these contribute to some of the highest overall poverty and child-poverty rates in Canada. In B.C.’s capital of Victoria, the impacts of these short-sighted public policy priorities have been acutely apparent. In fact, on the night of February 10, 2016, the date of the 2016 Greater Victoria Point in Time Count (PiT Count), there were approximately 1,400 people experiencing homelessness in Greater Victoria. This is shameful.
The provincial government responds
The establishment of a homeless-led community and the beginnings of the SIC movement on the courthouse greenspace in the fall of 2015 was a direct response to this crisis. A year later, we can see that it has resulted in unprecedented levels of investment in the solution. We have been and are building more housing.
Here is what we have seen so far:
- $86 million investment in housing options; and
- 714 units of housing for homeless people.
These are directly and indirectly attributable to the existence and advocacy of SIC.
Greater Victoria’s regional government, the Capital Regional District, has released an implementation plan for $60 million in funding that includes:
- 268 supported housing units at provincial shelter rates;
- 175 affordable housing units; and
- More than 440 market rental units.
We have four new properties in our region dedicated to both permanent and transitional housing that have become operational since November 2015, with many more slated to come online by 2018.
While the implementation plan for this housing is far from perfect, it must be noted that before SIC we didn’t even have a plan.
The residents of SIC can claim an important victory. First, every single resident of SIC now has the option of a home indoors. Moreover, in the near future, hundreds of other individuals will have access to housing that was not even contemplated prior to the stand taken by the SIC movement. The homeless leaders of SIC refused to “move along” with nowhere else to go to. They chose to stand up against being displaced back into the streets and doorways of Victoria.
Facing off against a provincial housing minister with over a decade at the head of the portfolio that has overseen – and through negligence, has facilitated – the rapid and tragic growth of homelessness in B.C., SIC was forced to go to court to defend its right to exist without daily displacement. The result was a groundbreaking decision in favour of homeless people. Because of SIC, we have lasting legal precedence that calls to account municipal, provincial, and federal authorities that would seek injunctive relief against homeless people who, when forced to live outdoors, seek to make homes for themselves.
Supporting Super InTent City
Together Against Poverty Society (TAPS) is the small legal advocacy organization that I work for. TAPS got involved when we saw tents springing up at the court house a few blocks up from our office. We knew it was an important moment. We knew the people living there had been pushed too hard for too long, and that the time had come to take a stand.
I have worked at my desk here at TAPS for the past eight years, and over this time I have walked pretty much the same path from my apartment in North Park to the downtown core on my way to work every day. On my commute, I see the daily impacts of displacement. It’s a rare day when I do not pass police officers standing over a couple of people taking refuge under makeshift shelter erected near Pandora Green – people whose only “crime” is that they cannot afford a home.
I watch as people wearily push overloaded shopping carts with downcast eyes. They are obviously exhausted and hungry. They are headed down the street from neighbourhood parks towards Our Place, a local shelter, on their way to get a morning cup of coffee and a bite to eat. I have seen the number of people making this crawl grow year after year. I watched the pain of displacement and homelessness in action and felt powerless to do anything about it despite the fact that I pass this travesty on my way to work at an anti-poverty legal advocacy organization. What could we do?
TAPS first got involved by attending morning circle meetings held at SIC. This is where many of the residents would come together with members of the wider community to discuss the goings on of SIC. Having seen many of our past and current clients living in the community, we saw that there was space for us to grow our relationship with the residents and to bring whatever resources we could gather to support them in their stand. This meant recruiting and supporting pro bono legal counsel, Cathie Boies Parker and Jasmine McAdams, through evidence-gathering in preparation for two injunction hearings (British Columbia v. Adamson, 2016 BCSC 584 and British Columbia v. Adamson, 2016 BCSC 1245). It meant representing the residents of SIC in court. It meant liaising with local non-profits, churches, politicians, community groups and the media. It meant following the directions of the residents of SIC to support the organization of basic governance and decision-making.
Our work in supporting the residents of SIC was a first for us. For the most part, TAPS provides a face-to-face legal advocacy clinic to assist individuals with administrative law issues in tenancy, welfare, disability and employment standards. Firmly rooted in a “justice not charity” framework, we have always lamented our inability to fundamentally shift the conditions that create homelessness and poverty. We have been overburdened by attacking the individual faults of an overall system we abhor. TAPS has spent countless hours raising public awareness, meeting with ministers and bureaucrats, and working with the media, but nothing has had as great an impact as joining with SIC and turning to the courts to challenge the treatment of people living without homes.
Super InTent City changed something in me and in our organization. We could not and will not continue to sit in our offices politely waiting for change. While certainly the victories belong to the homeless residents of SIC themselves, TAPS undoubtedly played a central and important role – a role that other organizations across this country can and must also take on. We all know this situation is not okay. Fundamental Charter Rights are being violated as the displacement of the poor continues in virtually every corner of every province and territory. I know now that when the opportunity comes around again in this community, we will be better prepared to respond to the needs of the poor. It is my hope that other organizations across this country will be prepared for similar struggles that lay ahead. We can accomplish much when we come together.
Claiming housing as a human right
SIC was not the only community response we have seen to the crisis of homelessness in Victoria. In 2008, community leaders struck the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, we have the peer-led Committee to End Homelessness Victoria, and numerous other homelessness-reduction initiatives led by the local non-profit community.
The difference between SIC and these earlier and ongoing approaches is that SIC brought a recalcitrant provincial government to the table to actually contribute to the solution instead of just talking about one. I am convinced that without the successful legal defense of SIC, the level of investment that we have seen in addressing the problem would never have been realized.
Municipal and non-profit charitable responses alone cannot solve homelessness. Organizations and the homeless themselves must prepare for future opportunities to bring federal and provincial authorities to the table in a way that ensures these actors are forced to do more than talk about the issue. These authorities, left to their own devices, will not make investments to meet the moral obligation of ensuring dignity and homes for all. Undoubtedly, there will be court dates to come. Our Charter of Rights and our Canadian values demand it.
To get there, we must have courage. We must be proactive in seeking out and building relationships with people who are homeless and to follow their leadership so that the next struggle is not one that we are merely reacting to.
I dream about what could have been accomplished had we been prepared in advance of the first tent going up at SIC. In order to realize housing as a basic human right, to move section 7 charter rights toward positive interpretation, we must be ready. We must be organizing now.
On September 12, 2016, the mayor of Victoria awarded Super InTent City with a Mayor’s Medal – Legacy Award. Congratulations to all involved! – Ed.