While living in the Mission area in 2013 I regularly picked up hitchhikers travelling on Lougheed Highway in the first rural area beyond the suburbs of Vancouver. The men I met on the highway were on the edge of homelessness or already there. They used to work in the shingle mills that line the Fraser River until (in line with the general de-industrialization of the Lower Mainland) they closed or ramped down to a skeleton crew. Since then they had survived on day labour and piecework jobs while waiting for EI, welfare, or a promised work contract. They lived in fifth wheel trailers behind the houses of friends, or in the few rundown, flea infested cabins along the side of the highway. Two years later, these men are among the hundred or so in homeless camps in Abbotsford and Maple Ridge, or they have been pushed (back) into the city and are staying in shelters and surviving off food-lines in the Downtown Eastside.
Homeless people (particularly men, because women’s homelessness remains less publicly visible and less counted and acknowledged) show up in local communities, and homeowners and the media treat them as local problems to be scattered – but the truth is that their homelessness is no more local than its causes. Cities have played a role creating homelessness as we know it, but only within a global trend of governments attacking unions and working peoples’ power, cutting taxes, marketing cities as products to buy, and austerity (social program cutting) policies. Increasingly local responsibilities for managing poverty were not matched by local power or autonomy; and they weren’t given the financial resources to deal with them.
Cities have begun to adapt to this impossible situation where they must deal with the unjust effects of senior government policies. In Vancouver, enormous grassroots organizing efforts forced the City to lease a few units of housing to move homeless people out of a protest tent city, or contribute towards a new winter homeless shelter program. More recently some smaller cities have begun their own initiatives for managing homelessness. Maple Ridge’s Mayor Nicole Read refused to scatter the prominent Cliff Avenue tent city, and Victoria’s Mayor Lisa Helps proposed that the city borrow money and build social housing rather than wait on the provincial government.
Because they are closer to voters, mayors are more vulnerable to the ideologies and bigotries of their local publics. The most mobilized and entitled-feeling local publics are homeowners – the tax base of city governments. So while Federal and Provincial social housing programs may stoke the ire of local property owners (in the worst examples, driving and reinforcing race segregation in cities), it is city government initiatives, like Vancouver’s recurrent anti-homeless shelter mobilizations in Yaletown, that have really mobilized Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) outrage.
In Maple Ridge, Mayor Nicole Read’s refusal to disperse the Cliff Avenue homeless camp has revealed a deeply troubling anti-homeless hatred in her community. Through the spring and summer of 2015, the camp became a target of anti-homeless and poor bashing sentiments online. Twice local property owners organized rallies and marches calling for the homeless to be driven from Maple Ridge. To her credit, Mayor Read has resisted this significant public pressure and has refused to scatter the camp. But in response to this pressure the Mayor’s office has been pushed to advocate for new homeless shelter beds, and to present these as solutions that will resolve the homeless camp crisis. By posing behind the poor bashers Mayor Read may have won some shelter beds but she may also have painted the City into the corner of a promise to eliminate the homeless camp. The Maple Ridge Times reports that after the shelter opens, the City of Maple Ridge “will obtain an injunction to break up the much-maligned homeless camp on Cliff Avenue.”
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps has proposed a more creative action navigating through local anti-homeless hate. In the summer of 2015 Mayor Helps publicly proposed a semi-permanent tent city (a distorted version of a homeless-community-driven plan for a Dignity Village) in a city park. Three-hundred property owners showed up to confront her in this park and shouted down the prospect of a tent city in their neighbourhood. Riding this anti-homeless sentiment, Mayor Helps announced an alternative: Victoria could raise taxes $11-per-year, borrow $50million, and build 367 units of social housing to take the homeless off the streets for good. Like the smaller example in Maple Ridge, Mayor Helps’s $50 million proposal could build housing for the homeless (which would be welcome) but the implicit promise is that it will end homelessness in Victoria. The public visibility of homeless people until this housing is built (and those who will inevitably remain after) would become political liabilities for Helps, as well as increased problems for the NIMBY homeowner groups. What will happen to them?
Homeless people in Maple Ridge and Victoria have ambitions and solutions to their conditions of homelessness. Some of them want to be housed. Others want a dedicated lot where they can set up their own, self-managed community in tents and simple structures. If the government were to focus on poverty as a general, socially caused problem, experienced differently by different people, they would see these homeless communities as the best authors of their own solutions. But instead even the most friendly governments treat the visibility of homeless people as the problem, and their disappearance as the solution. Cities, alone, cannot solve the housing crisis, and it is a mistake to pretend they can.