Super InTent City Succeeded in Showing the Way Forward

By: 

Stephen Portman and Kelly Newhook

Although Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson has ruled that Super InTent City must be dismantled, there can be no doubt that its existence led to a historic victory in the struggle to provide homes to the homeless across our region — a victory fought for and won by the homeless themselves, with help from compassionate supporters.

A conservative estimate for the total investment in housing solutions, directly and indirectly attributable to the existence of the tent city, is $86 million, with 714 units of housing for homeless people. This level of investment would not have happened if the homeless had not taken up residence on the courthouse property and made the problem impossible to ignore.

Many of these units are not permanent, some are yet to be constructed, and the homeless themselves are yet to be included in a meaningful way in the construction, design and proposed governance of these facilities. Nevertheless, there is hope that the landscape of homelessness across the region will be transformed.

Tent cities in British Columbia are the visible manifestation of failed public policy, decades of disinvestment in social housing, an abysmal social safety net with welfare rates frozen for more than nine years, and the lowest minimum wage and the highest child poverty rates in Canada. We live in a province where our government has virtually abdicated any role in improving the safety, security and future of an entire class of people.

The homeless themselves have demonstrated what it takes to solve the problems inflicted upon them by an underfunded, unresponsive and uncaring system.

The answer? Exist in the state that these forces have reduced you to in a way that they cannot ignore, and social change begins to flow.

The tent city grew out of necessity. The homeless are forced to pick up and move along each and every day with nowhere to place their belongings, let alone a place to belong themselves. Living with persistent sleep deprivation, hunger and illness, these individuals created a solution where no other could be found.

The residents of the tent city created what many of us take for granted: the right to autonomy, safety and security. A home in community and a place to build a future. The “truth to power” message has been made clear: End displacement, stop criminalization of the poor, and recognize housing as a basic human right.

No doubt our community has been challenged since the first tent went up on the courthouse lawn. It has been ugly, complicated and has pitted people and neighbourhoods against one another. The neighbourhood, Christ Church Cathedral, and indeed the residents of the tent city themselves have all faced real challenges over the past eight months. There should never have been a need for an economic refugee camp in a region as prosperous as ours. The question now is where to go from here.

We continue to wait for a definitive answer from the federal government on whether it will add to the $60 million already committed by the Capital Regional District Housing First Initiative and provincial government. Further, the province’s most recent housing announcement regarding the Central Care Home and the Super 8 hotel is welcome and important.

Unfortunately, these new and long overdue efforts will not solve the problem in Victoria, where the depth of homelessness is far-reaching, affecting more than 1,400 people and their families. This is why we cannot rest until we have homes for all.

Let us return now to the sad reality. We are a city that has endorsed the criminalization of the poor through bylaws that punish people for sleeping outdoors where no other reasonable option exists. We are a region that has endorsed the development of housing that is far outside the reach of not only the homeless and working poor, but increasingly of middle-income families who want to build a future here. We are a province that has legislated starvation through stagnant welfare rates and lack of meaningful rent controls.

Finally, as a community, we have seen hate and misunderstanding grow in relation to class divisions and play out through public dialogue that unjustly and illogically stigmatizes and blames the poor. At Together Against Poverty Society, we believe we can all do better.

While we work through these challenges together, let us remember that the villain is not our community or the people in it, not the municipality or region, and perhaps, to be generous, not the provincial and federal governments. The villain is collective neglect of basic concepts of human dignity, rights and equality. Let us remember to honour those principles even if it makes us uncomfortable.

The victory of Super InTent City will be a lasting legacy for this community. Regardless of the court decision, we owe our gratitude to the homeless for showing us the way forward.