Maple Ridge Mayor’s home demolitions will not break the homeless justice movement

Maple Ridge’s demolition of Dwayne Martin’s cabin in Anita Place Tent City had been a long time coming. In February, Mayor Mike Morden’s City Council won a court injunction that gave them the power to register “verified occupants” of the long standing survival and protest camp. After evacuating the camp with a fire order, the City used their court-order-powered “verification” process to exclude the vast majority of over 50 former residents from returning. Most homeless residents were stuck in the night-by-night emergency shelter re-opened nearby, or scattered out into the bushes and alleys of Maple Ridge. 

Dwayne, along with a half dozen others who had managed to build wooden cabins, were among the 11 people that the City allowed to return to live under 24-hour surveillance of a dozen security guards behind a 8-foot high construction fence.

Dwayne explained that he built his home in Anita Place because the City’s anti-homeless policies left him no choice. Standing outside the gates of the camp waiting for the City excavator to tear his place down, he said, “for years, the City has refused to house homeless people. The City has voted down new social housing from BC Housing and sided with anti-homeless bigots against modular housing. We created Anita Place without permission from politicians or police, without money or staff or resources. We survived together at Anita Place even though all of us arrived here at the lowest point in our lives and we all live in pain and poverty. We helped each other live through overdoses and abuse and police terror. We helped each other heal.” 

Supreme Court Justice Grauer’s verification order also gave the City the power to “shrink the footprint” of the camp, removing tents and structures, after occupants left. Since receiving this power, throughout the spring and summer, the City was quick to demolish homes, and slow to allow other verified occupants back into the camp. Even with a clarification from Justice Grauer that ordered the city to allow those listed as occupants to return, the head of the City’s bylaw department, Michelle Orsetti, acted as a bureaucratic bottleneck that slowed and stopped homeless people from getting through the guarded gates of the camp.

Four walls, a roof, and a life-saving community space: Dwayne’s cabin 

Dwayne repeatedly exclaimed in the media that he would be “the last one” to leave Anita Place. His fight, he said, was for the end of homelessness, not just housing for himself. As a public leader of the homeless struggle in western Canada, Mayor Morden realized Dwayne’s courage was an example to others and targeted him in an attempt to break the homeless community’s spirit of resistance. Mayor Morden got Dwayne out with pressure from every side, winning a court order that specifically named Dwayne with an eviction day of August 1st, in time for BC Housing to offer him housing for that same day. They thought they could buy him, because that is all they know: buying and selling.

After removing Dwayne, Mayor Morden also went after his cabin. Built out of scavenged materials and against the City’s orders, Dwayne’s cabin was a potent and visible symbol of homeless resistance against the City’s arbitrary and punitive treatment of the poor.

IMAGE: Dwayne’s 2-storey cabin, built out of scavenged materials, was a home for the homeless community

It was surprising that Dwayne was not more upset watching his cabin’s demolition. Instead, he was proud to see how difficult it was for the excavator to tear it down. “I built my cabin out of nothing, out of scavenged wood,” he said. “When I started building it, I did not know how. The bottom floor is more screws and nails than wood. The walls may not be straight but they are 2 feet thick! But by the time I built the second floor I figured it out.”

He was not devastated by the demolition because “I guess I’ve gotten used to it,” he said. “Over the years, bylaw and fire officers have stolen more things from me than I can even remember. The first time it happens, you’re outraged. But then it’s just normal.” Dwayne is right. The demolition of his cabin was different from the regular, everyday, banal seizure and demolition of homeless people’s tents and camps only by degree. While most homeless home demolitions require just 2 city workers, a truck, and a pitchfork, the demolition of his cabin required a court order and it was a spectacle.

Dwayne explained that his cabin was always more than his place; it was a place for his community as well. “Not everyone who is housed has a home; but my place is a real home. My cabin has been a home to people who have shown up in camp after being evicted from a shelter or an apartment. I have stored donated clothes and blankets and tents in my cabin until I could share them with people who need them. I built a wall of shelves to store and distribute harm reduction supplies for drug users. My cabin has been a meeting room and a social space and a place I have argued about politics and rested and lived and loved. My cabin has been a dignified home.”

You can tear down our cabins, but our resistance will only grow stronger

At the time of Dwayne’s eviction, Melanie Atfield was living in the bottom floor while Dwayne lived upstairs. 

Melanie hoped against hope that the City of Maple Ridge would allow her to stay in the cabin after Dwayne was gone. “It’s my home and I really want to stay in my home,” she said. “It sucks… for them make you homeless again while [you’re already] homeless.” 

Mel had already lost a place to stay after the “verified” occupant who lived there was evicted and the home torn down. “I am worried they are going to take a perfectly safe structure and tell me to live in a tent on the ground with the rats, like they did last time. I’d like to stay in my home.” 

Rather than allow Melanie to stay in Dwayne’s cabin, the City tore the cabin down.

The City of Maple Ridge plans to demolish the remaining cabins and tent sites in Anita Place in September, when BC Housing opens the city’s second modular housing building. But despite Mayor Morden’s repression and brutality, homeless activists, including Dwayne, are determined to keep building their movement for homeless justice, and for homes for all. 

After watching city workers tear down his cabin Dwayne said, ““Mayor Morden has stolen the home we have created because he wants us to leave town or die. But this is not over. Homeless people in Maple Ridge have faced more than Mayor Mike Morden can imagine. Morden thinks that by getting us out of Anita Place he has won but he is wrong. Our fight is just beginning.”

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