Anyone who has driven Highway 7 east of Coquitlam since the summer will be familiar with the Ridgeilante movement. When BC Housing announced plans to replace the makeshift storefront homeless shelter with a permanent, more suitably outfitted shelter, Ridgeilantes put up an everyday picket of signs along the highway that read: “Drugs and Daycares Don’t Mix,” “No Low-Barrier Shelters,” and “Sign the Petition,” directing drivers into a small stripmall to sign a petition hosted by the owners of a pet salon.
On Friday December 9th, the same day that Environment Canada updated and extended their extreme weather warning for the Fraser Valley, BC Housing announced that the Province is again abandoning plans for a permanent shelter project in Maple Ridge. A far-right, grassroots, single-issue hate group focused on driving homeless people out of their city, Ridgeilantes have now twice been successful in stopping BC Housing promises to take homeless people off the streets of Maple Ridge.
Promises wrought from the Cliff Avenue Tent City
In 2015 a group of homeless Indigenous women started a tent city at the end of a cul de sac on Cliff Avenue to create a respite from daily displacement by bylaw officers and to fight for the services their community was being denied. After several months of struggle, the Cliff Avenue tent city won some minor gains from the City and Province. BC Housing doubled the amount of money available for temporary housing supplements. The City hired additional outreach workers to use these supplements to place tent city residents in scarce rental housing units; often these residents were only housed thanks to the ingenuity of these outreach workers who ‘created’ rental housing by combining supplements and leasing entire houses.
The self-organized militancy of the Cliff Avenue tent city helped expose the barriers and morally regulatory problems of existing shelter services in Maple Ridge, which had been run by the Salvation Army in their typical fashion – arbitrary maximum stays, searches and seizures of drug paraphernalia, and evictions and bars for suspected intoxication. The tent city pushed the City to revaluate its contract with Salvation Army and to develop new, “low-barrier” services. When BC Housing freed up more money for another shelter, which was supposed to be winter-only but the contract has continued due to a total lack of housing, the City contracted Rain City to manage it on a low-barrier, harm reduction basis.
The tent city also created some momentum towards building more social housing infrastructure in Maple Ridge. BC Housing promised to buy the Quality Inn as temporary transitional housing while planning and building a new permanent social housing building and to establish a shelter as entry point to this system. It was not enough to take all of Maple Ridge’s homeless off the street, but it was a gesture towards a graduated plan to house homeless people.
Tent City wins overturned by a right wing reaction
The death of BC Housing’s promised permanent homeless shelter marks the end of wins from the power of the Cliff Avenue tent city.
Rain City’s low-barrier shelter in the mattress store on Lougheed Highway has become an embarrassing fixture rather than a transition to housing. Tent City residents have now lived in that mattress store, with 40 single beds lined up in an open warehouse space, for 16 months. And the transitional housing and shelter promised have both been retracted. All that remains is an unspecific, long-term promise to build social housing.
Tent City’s positive pressure on housing services has been offset by negative pressure from a right wing Ridgeilante reaction. Ridgeilante politics have been most visible in their political rallies, pickets, and online hate groups, but they go deeper into the political culture in Maple Ridge and the Fraser Valley.
Low-income people in Maple Ridge report a loss of basic survival services since Tent City. Most food and survival services in the community had been supplied by charities. When charitable popular feeling was challenged by a right wing explanation of homelessness as individual failing, that charitable-giving disappeared. Salvation Army used to provide a daily breakfast as well as daily dinners, but when the City challenged their high-barrier moralist model they cancelled the breakfasts and scaled back dinner servings. There are currently no open free breakfast or lunch feedings, and dinners are provided only five nights a week, through the Salvation Army and one other charity.
The Food Bank also puts up barriers that demand low-income people demonstrate that they are deserving of charity. To access the Maple Ridge Food Bank, you must have proof of an address, which excludes homeless people, and government identification, which many low-income people don’t have, particularly if they have been homeless in the recent past. This poses an urgent problem of hunger and malnutrition for low-income people in Maple Ridge. It also points to the inadequacy and undependability of charity-based services to sustain low-income peoples lives.
Low-income people in Maple Ridge depend on charities because they are shut out from accessing shops by discrimination. Tent City leader Tracy Scott estimates that 90% of the people barred from the Tim Horton’s on Lougheed are members of what she calls the “street population.” She says that she has dressed up fancy and sat in the Timmy’s all day but when she goes in with people profiled as part of the street population she gets thrown out right away.
Further, the RCMP’s recently announced plan to “red zone” the entire city of Maple Ridge against “repeat offenders” will write anti-poor discrimination into law. Low-income people who have been forced to depend on scavenging food from dumpsters, or shoplifting it from grocery stores will be profiled, harassed, and shut out of the city centre. Tent City leader Mama Bear says it amounts to a plan to “push every one of us out of Maple Ridge.” This idea is confirmed by Ridgeilante chatter on the internet.
Ridgeilantes as political bellwether
BC’s Minister of Housing Rich Coleman is notorious for his dislike of housing activists. This year he heaped scorn on activists for “using” homeless people in tent cities to advance their goals of changing government policy. So why does he seem so eager to please this particular group of Ridgeilante protesters? Going back on his promise for a shelter is the second time in a year that Coleman has heeded Ridgeilante demands.
Beyond the BC Liberals, who could be interpreted as seizing the Ridgeilante demands as an excuse to withhold social spending that they are ideologically opposed to doling out anyhow, BC NDP housing critic David Eby has also cozied up to the Ridgeilantes. He spoke out in support of their opposition to housing at the Quality Inn in 2015, helping them mischaracterize the housing as a shelter, and has been silent on the death of the new shelter project. Some opposition.
It appears that austerity policies – cutting corporate taxes and rolling back social spending – are rooted in the ideologies of Ridgeilante social exclusion and hate. The Cliff Avenue Tent City showed that low-income people in Maple Ridge have some power when they come together, and it also shows that we cannot afford to relax in the confidence of partial victories. The Ridgeilante reaction against the Tent City’s assertion of low-income peoples’ basic humanity, and the BC government’s affirmation of their hatred with denials of services, must not be a warning against asserting our humanity.
Instead, it must be a call for the growing group of people in Maple Ridge who want to end poverty, and not displace homeless people, to step out from facebook chat rooms and into the streets. It must be a call for the anti-displacement movement to rally around low-income people in Maple Ridge and defend their safety, their freedom of movement, their access to food and health care, and to support their fight for homes. Ridgeilantes and the BC government are two arms of the same political current and we need to oppose them both.