On Monday March 12th a group of homeless activists started a camp on the lawn of Nanaimo City Hall in order to protest against the City’s decision to refuse Provincial money for a supportive housing building. The City used the complaints of an anti-homeless group of property owners as an excuse to turn down the new housing. The 50 homeless people at City Hall Tent City demanded funding and permission for a shelter, new housing, and a drop-in centre for homeless people. On Monday March 19th the City of Nanaimo met and voted to speed up the funding and opening of the drop-in. The City immediately put pressure on the City Hall Tent City to disperse – the very next morning City bylaw officers set on campers telling them that if they didn’t leave, the City would seize their tents.
Lies from the City and Fire department disoriented and divided the camp. The Fire Chief told campers that if they left City Hall they would be allowed to set up permanent camps in two city parks. But when people moved to one park police showed up and told them to leave. Then they moved to the other and hours later bylaw officers showed up and said they were only allowed to camp 7pm to 9am, which is a right set by BC Supreme Court decision—not a favour from City Council. As result of the City’s lies and bylaw officer intimidation, people have been scattered into different parks for night-by-night camping and back into hiding in camps.
One, two, many tent cities
The emergence of a homeless fightback in Nanaimo is a sign that the widening inequality gap in British Columbia is beginning to fill with the self-activity of low-income and homeless communities. Anita Place Tent City in Maple Ridge is a now-11 month old protest and survival camp that has proven particularly resilient against government displacement efforts. Smaller cities throughout British Columbia have conditions very much like those in Maple Ridge that gave rise to Anita Place. Nanaimo is a good example of these similarities. The number and makeup of the homeless community is similar, and so are the forces they face – City and police control, anti-homeless hatred, and very limited poverty and shelter services.
One 60-something homeless man named Carlos told me that he and his girlfriend get moved sometimes 5 or 6 times a night by cops, private security guards, and “volunteer rat” vigilantes who drive them from park to doorway to street corner and back again. It sounded to me like Maple Ridge before Anita Place.
Like in Maple Ridge, there is a lot of poverty and homelessness – the 2016 Nanaimo homeless count was 176 people (Maple Ridge’s was 124) and homeless people say there is more than twice that: about 150 people in hidden camps in the north end of town and hundreds of others spread around. Homeless people in Nanaimo are informally organized in order to survive. They stay hidden away from the public, the cops, and bylaw in pretty long term camps. And, like in Maple Ridge, homeless people have a tight community where they all know each other, meaning they already have organizing networks, which are starting to be consciously politicized. Tent cities are survival spaces where homeless people build alternatives to reliance on austerity-addled housing and services – as they multiply they will also increase pressure on the state that is the enemy of all working class and Indigenous people.
From protest to resistance
When delegates from Anita Place Tent City met with those recently displaced campers in Nanaimo a few days after their camp had been scattered, we explained that the hardest part of starting Anita Place Tent City was establishing the camp. It’s hard to get the homeless community together and united behind a single action, and it’s hard to defend a new camp against police and bylaw who are used to bullying homeless people back into hiding.
Nanaimo campers have started talking about their demands for a tent city, the agreements that campers should follow, a name based on a tent city pun, and, most importantly, a site that they can take and defend using both the legal precedents set by Anita Place (along with Victoria’s Super InTent City, Vancouver’s Sugar Mountain, and Abbotsford’s Dignity Village), as well as direct force. It may soon be time to defend our friends in Nanaimo as they create a new front in our common struggle against the violences of homelessness.