(This is a longer version of the interview that appeared in the Downtown East November 2013 print edition. It was edited down for the print version due to space constraints, we are glad to present the full version online.)
Recently the Downtown East caught up with Barry Shantz, an organizer with the BC/Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors in Abbotsford.
DT East: Abbotsford has been in the news recently regarding homeless camps that the City wants to dismantle. The latest homeless count stats (2011) set the number at 117, a significant drop from the previous count. What, in your opinion, is the homeless situation in Abbotsford?
Barry: Determining the homeless population in Abbotsford is difficult. The recent published count is severely flawed. The author personally told me that he deliberately flawed it because he needs to keep his job. The police followed him around so he was reluctant to go some places because he knew he wouldn’t be welcomed; and he knew he was distorting the facts. So when you have a group of people so terrorized that they are hiding, there is no way we can get an accurate count. And when you get into the different types of couch-surfing scenarios, there could be 7 or 8 people who stay in one place. If that situation is lost, boom there’s another 8 more people on the street until another couch-surfing option. Tent cities exist as well, and that’s plural. Four or five, maybe six … it’s hard to tell because many don’t want to be found. So I don’t know, 500, 600, 700.
When the weather goes below 1 degree or zero, the extra emergency shelter becomes available. The Salvation Army chronically bans the hardest to house, so when the weather drops below zero, this group of people believe they can finally have an opportunity to get some shelter inside. The shelter is at a church and the church is not prepared. So a simple thing, like an individual smelling like weed, is going to get him thrown out, cause an argument, or result in a police call. So the police tend to sit in the parking lot all night long diffusing arguments and chasing people back into the woods again.
DT East: The incident of the City dumping chicken shit at one homeless camp made the headlines. What has been the City’s response to visible homlessness?
Barry: The chicken shit brought a lot of light to the homeless situation. In the past, pepper spraying, tent slashing and property destruction wouldn’t have gotten the media’s attention. Now it has. So we not only have the recognition of the chicken shit, but we have two tent slashing and pepper spraying incidents that are in a police complaint process right now, and heading toward small claims court.
The City of Abbotsford’s strategy of is one of torment and harassment, along with withholding services. The idea of getting turned down for housing if you have a criminal background, the uncertainty of where you’re going to spend the next night, if your camp is going to be rousted and you be instructed to move, under threat of possible violence, could be possible chicken shit, could be anything, but there is a fear and uncertainty every minute of every day because you don’t know what’s coming next.
DT East: The City of Abbotsford has taken a strong stance against harm reduction and has made distribution of needles illegal. In your work with the Drug War Survivors, how has the City’s hostility toward drug users, “tough on crime” political agenda, and inadequate housing strategy impacted the lives of people?
Barry: It is my opinion that the City of Abbotsford has a scheme to cleanse itself of undesirables, that is, gangsters. It starts with the new Crime Prevention Plan that makes all drug use, drug possession and drug dealing directly related to organized crime. But when we look at the “most wanted” list published in the local newspaper every two weeks, we find people charged with failure to appear, breach of probation, and theft under … all dope-fiend charges. So they have now targeted every drug user as a gangster, and they proudly boast in the newspaper that Abbotsford will be the worst place for a gangster to be. The City’s Housing Strategy Plan has no consideration, no effort, no nothing, from mid-level income down, no low-barrier housing, no nothing. The larger housing complexes have a streamlined process that involves a criminal background check. So if you have a criminal record, you aren’t getting housing in any of the major large-scale housing initiatives.
Abbotsford has the title of murder capital of Canada, home of two of the most violent gangs in the province, home of many of the most violent criminals, and a police department that has armed up over the last several decades to participate in war against them. Yet their most wanted list is our membership. None of this really has anything to do with organized crime, in my opinion. It has nothing to do with massive importing or piles of money or anything like that. It seems to be targeting a very vulnerable group of people. We’ve got a police chief who puts himself in a Santa Claus outfit with an Uzi and AK 47, wearing a flak jacket and a helmet, and he sends this out to drug users letting them know that he is going to make this the worst place they have ever been. So this is the type of enthusiasm and license that the police department has.
I would also say that the pressure applied to street entrenched women of Abbotsford has been cranked up considerably over this last while. Recently the cops arrested 11 people in an area in downtown Abbotsford known as “crack alley”; 7 of them were women. Everyone who got arrested for possession for the purposes of trafficking, if they get convicted, will face the new mandatory minimums that do not allow for any lenience.
In my view, the good old boys network that runs Abbotsford is very strong, and they want to build the biggest, most beautiful, luxury community in the world. But they are failing to address the most marginalized and vulnerable people in their community. If they think that a cleansing scheme is going to fix this, I think they should get ready for a rude awakening.