If there is one thing to learn from the City of Abbotsford, it’s how NOT to deal with the homeless crisis. Abbotsford’s main strategy is to push homeless people from one place to another, hoping that they will leave town altogether or disappear into places where they are no longer visible.
While homelessness in Abbotsford has increased by 29% in the past three years, homeless campers have had their tents slashed, property destroyed and belongings pepper sprayed by the police to intimidate them to leave.
In June 2013 the city ordered a truck-load of chicken manure to be dumped on the site of a homeless camp after forcing its residents to leave, in an effort to keep them from returning.
In response, the Abbotsford chapter of the Drug War Survivors established a “Dignity Village” homeless camp in Jubilee Park on Oct 20, 2013. Clustered around a teepee that was set up with traditional protocols, it made the homeless crisis visible once again in the middle of the city.
The City responded by issuing an injunction against the camp just a few days before Christmas, and the homeless folks in Jubilee Park were forced out under the watchful eye of the police. A few were given housing; many simply moved to another location beside the railway tracks along Gladys Ave. The teepee was erected again, and this site became the new Dignity Village.
Meanwhile, in a vote of 4-3, Abbotsford’s city council rejected a 20 unit social housing project that would have offered decent housing for some. Remarkably, a city gaining recognition for its homeless crisis and its abusive treatment of homeless people turned down a provincially funded housing project.
A number of homeless camps emerged along the street next to the train tracks, and across the street from the Salvation Army. Despite the land being unceded Indigenous territory, BC Hydro claimed ownership of it and posted “NO Trespassing” signs along with notices to vacant by July 31, 2014. When that day arrived, so did the outreach workers and volunteers to help with the removal of the homeless people and their belongings. Scattered to the winds, they moved off into the bushes or other locations where they had previously set up their tents. The group of tents surrounding the teepee, however, was not on BC Hydro’s claimed land and so Abbotsford’s Dignity Village remained, ten months after it was launched in Jubilee Park.
Cities want to make homeless people disappear rather than become active advocates for low-income housing. But in Abbotsford and Vancouver people are making the crisis visible and demanding real solutions. Through their struggles for justice, these homeless fighters are also improving the conditions of their lives, and building communities of resistance. As long-time Dignity Village leader Calvin said, the camp has successfully resisted and pushed back police violence and harassment of homeless people in Abbotsford, “they can’t attack us anymore because we showed them.” It’s a strong call for justice arising from those most impacted, and it requires our ongoing solidarity and support.