“People who sleep alone in the woods are in more danger than people in the camp. They’re always in danger,” Mum said. “Living here in a community like this is safer because you can’t be targeted just as one. The others will see what’s going on. There’s backup. We look out for each other… not that we all like each other!” she laughed. Mum knows about tent city community because she lives in Dignity Village, nestled between a warehouse district and the train tracks in Abbotsford. But her laughter disguises a difficult truth. The ‘community’ in a homeless tent city is built out of necessity – people in the camp are pushed together into a collective by violent threats surrounding the camp.
Mum is used to being harassed for being homeless but an attack in early May took her by surprise. “I was standing just here outside my tent,” she said. “Some guy came running down the street with a car following slowly behind him. He threw what looked like a McDonald’s milkshake right at me. It went just past me and exploded on the ground. Right away you could smell the bleach. If he hit me I could’ve been blinded.” I asked her if she told the police. “What for?” she said. She couldn’t imagine they would help.
Residents at the Maple Ridge tent city also don’t feel protected by police. Tracey, an Indigenous woman who tent city residents elected camp spokesperson, said that strangers threaten the camp nearly daily. For example, on a Saturday in early June two men walked through the camp threatening to come back at night “with gasoline” and “burn everyone out.” Although police have not been harassing residents, they also aren’t investigating threats to homeless peoples lives.
In early June the Social Housing Alliance planned to organize a BBQ to support homeless campers against anti-homeless ideas, but decided to cancel it after an outpouring of that hate escalated into threats of mob violence against the camp. A statement about the cancellation explained that police treat citizen-anger against low-income people as though it is a “normal and inevitable thing that people in the tent city should have to deal with.” Comments on Facebook laid responsibility for unleashing this violence on the BBQ organizers, who replied that the BBQ event “opened the curtains on the hate and violence that low-income and Indigenous people face every day in Maple Ridge.”
Facebook comments on the BBQ event page also reflected a common belief that low-income people are not legitimate residents (or, “citizens”) of Maple Ridge. Leigh E. wrote, “Tent city isn’t a city at all. The ‘street citizens’ and council can call it what they like but to myself and many others, it will NEVER be acceptable. EVER.” Jenny D. said, “The homeless that are tenting off cliff ave are not residents. They do not own property there, they do not pay rent there and they do not pay property tax there.” Therefore, Jill M. wrote, “If you do this and it angers the homeowners to the point where they just say f this and tear down the camp themselves.” Perpetual displacement is the logical solution to nuisance camps that don’t belong. But, as Maple Ridge’s Mayor Read herself has argued, displacement brings no actual solutions to the social causes of homelessness.
People are in danger of violence from strangers when they are profiled as being part of street populations – whether homeless, sex worker, mentally ill, pan-handler, or drug user. Many Indigenous women report that they are often approached on the street in Vancouver as sex workers. The problem is that there is a common public idea that people in street populations are less-than human and that, as scholar Andrea Smith argues, they are seen as “rape-able” and “genocide-able” without repercussions. Indifference of police and other authorities supports violent anti-street hatred because they affirm the belief that violence against low-income people (particularly those who are Indigenous or Black) will not be punished and that it is okay to hate and assault poor people.
In some ways we send the same message when our movements fail to mobilize for our communities most vulnerable to violence. Kwakwaka’wakw scholar Sarah Hunt asks what would happen if “every time an Indigenous woman had her personal boundaries crossed without consent, we were moved to act in the same way as we’ve seen to the threat of a pipeline in our territories?” If the personal bodily integrity and power of those of us most vulnerable to violence were the focus of our movements for justice, she argues, “we would constantly be busy with this singular activity. That’s the extent of violence today. But this would certainly show our dedication to take care of one another.” And it would be a clear statement of what we mean by “social justice.”