On June 13th, Tri-Cities homeless activists and supporters launched the ‘We Exist’ tent city to create a space to be for homeless community and to fight for homes for all. The camp was immediately broken up by the RCMP, acting on a pre-existing encampment “operations” plan prepared in advance by the City of Coquitlam.
As explained by the We Exist camp’s founding declaration, homeless Coquitlam residents decided to form a tent city because they were tired of being constantly displaced by the “Tri-Cities model” of disappearing the homeless with police and bylaw harassment. Ross Brydon, a founder of the camp, said he wanted to call the tent city “We Exist” because the Tri-Cities are in denial about its homelessness crisis.
While the We Exist Tent City lasted only minutes before the RCMP shut it down, the homeless activists who created the camp accomplished their first goal – they forced themselves into public view and made their struggles a political issue.
The Tri-Cities model of denying homelessness
At the beginning of May 2019, Tawnya Lee, a peer worker with RainCity Housing in Coquitlam, reached out to Alliance Against Displacement (AAD), asking for our help to start a tent city. Tawnya told us that homeless people in Coquitlam face the same problems that homeless people face across BC: harassment from bylaw and police, daily displacement, theft of tents and belongings, refusal of admission to shelters, and denial of their existence by city council. Tawnya said, “I got sick of hearing there are no homeless people here, so I did a registry where people signed up and I found 67 people who are homeless in just the few blocks surrounding the shelter. There must be hundreds across the Tri-Cities.”
“When we see bylaw officers, they tell us to leave town because Coquitlam doesn’t have homeless people,” Ross said at the launch of the tent city. “They say go to Maple Ridge, or Vancouver.” The police and bylaw harassment is so bad, Ross said, that it pushes homeless people into danger far out in the forests to the north of Coquitlam. The most present danger that Ross faces thanks to the Tri-Cities model? “Bears. I deal with two bears at my camp every day.”
This problem is so endemic in Coquitlam that even in front of the crowd gathered on Thursday to set up the tent city, an RCMP officer approached a homeless couple and said, “I thought I told you to leave for Surrey.”
In May, a homeless woman filmed an interaction that she says happens “everyday” between an RCMP officer and a friend of hers, in front of the homeless shelter at 3030 Gordon. The officer is heard in the video lecturing the homeless man, accusing him of lacking “personal responsibility” and telling him to move to Edmonton if he can’t afford rent in Metro Vancouver.
“A place to be with my friends”
When word got out that homeless people and supporters were thinking of starting a camp in the empty lot next to the RainCity shelter at 3030 Gordon, the RCMP showed up. They seized banners that said “We exist” and “Build homes to end homelessness,” then did a walkthrough of the empty lot searching for more signs. According to Tawnya, the cops told RainCity staff that they should “call 911 at the first sign of a protest.” Throughout May and early June, the Tri-Cities homeless community continued to organize in the face of police and bylaw repression.
To rally enough support to launch a tent city, the Tri-Cities homeless community and AAD called a demonstration to support the homeless, secretly planning to launch a camp at the end of a march. On June 13th, about 50 people rallied outside the Port Coquitlam Court where community members gave speeches before taking to the streets. The marchers were met with hostility, including one woman screaming “our city, our choice” – an anti-homeless slogan that originates in Maple Ridge. But there were also supporters along the route, cheering us on and raising their fists.
The march ended at an empty lot owned by the City of Coquitlam, next to the Tri-Cities’ only homeless shelter at 3030 Gordon. The marchers unloaded tents, belongings, and snow fence from a van and began setting up We Exist Tent City. Four homeless people who had not been on the march showed up immediately and started setting up tents. Three more people said they wanted to pitch a tent, but bylaw had recently stolen and destroyed their tents and belongings. One woman said, “I know the cops might take us out right away, but it’s worth the risk to me. I’m so tired of running away. I want a place where I can be with my friends.”
Fear of We Exist Tent City
The RCMP responded instantly. RCMP officers informed us that the City of Coquitlam had ordered them to enforce a trespass order, and that they would start making arrests in 30 minutes if we refused to take down tents and leave the site. Following advice from lawyers present to witness the tent city setup, Ross Brydon sent an email to City Council, arguing that displacing the camp would violate campers’ Charter rights. This claim, that homeless people have the right to seek ongoing shelter on publicly owned properties, should have given the Coquitlam homeless an opportunity to set up a camp undisturbed by police.
AAD organizer Ivan Drury called the RCMP detachment and spoke with Staff Sergeant Vedik to reiterate the same claim. Drury said, “It must not be up to the RCMP to decide on the fly whether enforcing the law means supporting the City of Coquitlam’s property rights under the Trespass Act or supporting homeless people’s Section 7 Charter right to security of the person. This is a Charter question that has to be resolved by a judge, not by the RCMP.” Staff Sergeant said, “We’ve done our homework. We knew this camp was going to start today. The City has met with its lawyers and we’ve had an ops plan in place for days.”
A dozen RCMP officers with loops of plastic zap strap handcuffs on their belts marched past the tent city’s new snow fence and into the camp. They lined up behind their commanding officer who announced that they were ready to arrest anyone who refused to leave the camp. The City of Coquitlam and the RCMP had decided long before the launch of the tent city that they would not hesitate to violate homeless people’s rights; they would stop the creation of a tent city no matter what.
With police at the gates, campers and supporters huddled in a circle and talked about what to do. “We decided that getting arrested this first time trying to start a camp, and having homeless people’s belongings and tents stolen by police yet again, would be more discouraging than to retreat and try again,” explained organizer Isabel Krupp. Four people from the new camp told police that the group decided to leave as long as the City would agree to meet with them and discuss building homes.
We Exist launched a new struggle in the Tri-Cities
Campers say the first outcome of the camp was that police and City officials ultimately agreed to two meetings with homeless Tri-Cities residents. The first meeting was held right away with two city bureaucrats. One of them, Andrew Merrill, Manager of Community Planning, promised he would do everything in his power to set up another meeting between representatives from We Exist and the Tri-Cities and BC Housing.
Meetings with bureaucrats, however impossible to arrange for homeless people without political action like We Exist, are a compromised win, said AAD organizer Listen Chen. An editorial in the Tri-Cities News admitted the “homeless protesters have a point” and “advised” the homeless to “work with established groups such as the Tri-Cities Homelessness and Housing Task Force and Hope for Freedom Society as well as city councils to build community acceptance for the programs and housing they so badly need.”
Listen Chen said this idea is badly misguided. “There is a mistaken idea out there that anti-homeless bigotry and NIMBYism is a barrier to housing and services for low-income people, and that the best thing governments and community groups can do is to educate the public to learn that homeless people aren’t bad. This gets it backwards,” Chen said. “Anti-poor hatred is encouraged by anti-poor government policies and anti-poor policing, which signals that homeless people are not a natural part of our communities. Abolishing anti-poor bylaws, supporting self-organized tent cities, and building homes is the clearest education message a government can send to the public.”
The Tri-Cities News editorial calls for homeless people to wait for bigoted public opinion as the prerequisite for the homes they need, and to appeal to the city government that is having them arrested and their tents and possessions ritualistically seized and destroyed. But the veterans of We Exist Tent City are determined not to wait for their enemies to accept them.
After the RCMP broke up the Tri-Cities first organized tent city effort, a dozen homeless people and supporters of We Exist Tent City got together in another city-owned vacant lot to share pizza and talk about next steps. They sat in a circle in the twilight, tired but hopeful. Ross Brydon summed up the group’s feeling. “We didn’t get what we wanted – the camp was broken up by force. But,” he said, “we should still be proud of what we did today. We marched down the streets saying ‘We exist!’ We can’t be ignored anymore.”