“There is No camping here. It’s time to move on. Thanks.”
These words were on the note Cody O’Day and Mackenzie Skorepa found attached to their tent in Ravine Park in Abbotsford. Their tent was turned upside down, the poles were broken, their mattress was deflated, and the stove lay on the ground. The camouflage covering hiding the tent had been dismantled as well, exposing their vulnerable circumstances for all to see.
The couple found their belongings like this when they returned after a day away from the city. It seems that the note had been left on their tent by a volunteer who was participating in a city-organized parks clean-up event. Apparently the volunteer was also responsible for taking down the camouflage, but maintains that he did not damage the tent or other items belonging to the couple.
Abbotsford’s new mayor Henry Braun quickly went into damage control and publicly apologized for the incident, promising that in the future volunteers would be instructed on how to handle the situation of homeless people and their belongings in a more appropriate and respectful manner.
What the mayor did not acknowledge was that the volunteer did exactly what the city has been doing to homeless people for years. The toxic attitude of distain and the tactics of harassment and displacement that has characterized the city’s public policies, political leadership and media discourse has trickled down into “ordinary” residents.
The City of Abbotsford has a history of by-laws against homelessness and harm reduction that has criminalized and stigmatized people who have been pushed into deep poverty. The City’s hostile stance toward homeless people became national news when workers dumped chicken manure on a camp across from the Salvation Army shelter. The City sought a court injunction to remove the homeless camp established by the Abbotsford Association of Drug War Survivors in Jubilee Park. Its legal argument against the camp was based on the false claim that there were enough shelter spaces in the city and on laws against erecting shelters on city property. In another revealing decision, City Council voted against a low-income social housing project that had money in hand from BC Housing because of pressure from the Abbotsford Downtown Business Association.
The Abbotsford Police Department has implemented a policy of “disperse and displace” against homeless people in an effort to force them out of town. Police officers have been accused of slashing tents and using pepper spray to dissuade people from returning to their camps. They were on hand to enforce injunctions against the homeless camp in Jubilee Park a few days before Christmas and the removal of homeless people from the BC Hydro lands along Gladys Avenue. The APD were also caught on video shooting Roy Roberts, a well-known homeless man who lives with mental illness, with rubber bullets. And taking the city’s anti-harm reduction stance a step further, law enforcement in Abbotsford has publicly equated mere drug use with organized crime, painting all illicit drug users as criminals and threats to public safety.
Clearly the political leadership, local police, business owners, municipal bureaucracy, and legal system have produced a powerful message of hatred and hostility toward homeless people and drug users in Abbotsford, and justified actions that displace them from places of survival and cleanse the city of their presence. It is no wonder that this dehumanizing attitude has shaped the perspectives and actions of residents who volunteer in the community. The problem is systemic, not the misguided efforts of a lone individual.