On Dec 20, 2013, after occupying Jubilee Park for two months, the people of Abbotsford’s Dignity Village homeless camp were forced to move. They set up a teepee and tents in the park on October 20th. They wanted to make the housing crisis in the Bible Belt visible. They sustained themselves through bad weather and challenging personal dynamics, and fought back against state intimidation, media antagonism and aggressive legal procedures. Finally they were forced to move on December 20th after the City of Abbotsford got a court injunction to remove them from the park. With a dozen cops and a host of city staff prodding the process along, social workers, supporters and friends helped take down tents and pack up personal belongings.
But where did they all go? Three took offers to move into available housing situations, but the core contingent set up another homeless camp half a mile away beside the railway tracks on Gladys Ave. This new camp, with the teepee once again flanked by multiple tents, is just as visible as before, maybe even more so. And it’s located between two other camps of homeless people that are just down the road in either direction. To the east is the infamous “chicken shit” camp, where last June the city dumped chicken manure to “persuade” the homeless to move, only to have them set up 50 feet down the road. Under pressure to move again, they relocated to the spot where the chicken manure had been deposited.
The Abbotsford Shuffle is a strategy of endless displacement. Perhaps city leaders are hoping that this tactic of harassment and torment will eventually “convince” homeless people to leave the city altogether. They clearly have no solution and seem more interested in managing it as a legal and public relations problem than a crisis of human need and political responsibility.
What has emerged, however, is something unexpected. The months spent at Jubilee Park produced a community of homeless people who have gained political savvy, organizational ability and a strong sense of care for one another. When a mother and daughter from Surrey recently arrived at the new camp, the community welcomed them in. They offered them a safe place to be and provided them with blankets against the cold nights. What the temporary Dignity Village at Jubilee Park gave this group of homeless individuals was a real sense of dignity. Next time, removal by the city won’t be so easy.
Most of the homeless at the Jubilee Park camp were also members of the Abbotsford chapter of the BC/Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors. Since 2005 the City of Abbotsford has had on its books anti-harm reduction zoning bylaws that prohibited all harm reductions measures. These laws not only created a situation of great harm for drug users, it also reinforced social stigma and discrimination. The Drug War Survivors fought back, launching a human rights complaint against the city. On January 14, 2014 city council revoked these bylaws prohibiting harm reduction, due to the relentless pressure generated by the collective action of drug users and their supporters.
This victory is another sign of strength exhibited by those on the bottom who are willing to disrupt business as usual. But the human rights legal challenge will not be withdrawn unless the City acknowledges the significant harms created by these laws and involves drug users themselves in the formation and implementation of the new harm reduction services. This is a crucial part of the healing process for drug war survivors, and it can keep new harm reduction health policies from becoming tools of social control in the hands of the ruling elite.
So the fight for housing and health continues for homeless drug war survivors in Abbotsford, but they have refused to disappear and they are getting stronger.