Sanctuary Tent City isn’t gone, it’s layered in the earth

Mel Forster was a founding member of Sanctuary Tent City, a camp in a wooded area off of King George Boulevard in Surrey, which was home to 50 people at its height. Sanctuary Tent City survived for almost a year, until the City of Surrey bulldozed the camp at the end of November 2019, after opening a new 42-bed shelter called “the Cove.” This article is a transcript of Isabel Krupp’s interview with Mel on the anniversary of the destruction of the camp.

In this interview Mel wields powerful imagery that hinges on her repeated geological telling of the layering and burying of belongings. She tells of how city workers ground up and layered her belongings with the dirt; the pain of the earth as it is wrenched and torn; the excavation of layers into a great mound; her friend Dan’s exhausted death from his quest to exhume those belongings; and then finally Mama Kim living on top of it all, protected from the police by the ghosts of lives lived and lives lost threaded into the land. It is on top of this metaphor that Mel imagines people’s resistance like leaves on a tree that grows from this soil. 

One of the quotes that didn’t make it into this article is, “I want to say fuck you to the City of Surrey. We’re staying and we’re not going anywhere.” This non-metaphorical declaration of resolute opposition and struggle is also appropriate to Mel’s poetry.

“They buried our camp”

Just before Christmas, last year, the City of Surrey bulldozed my camp. I went to get some food and when I came back, I got the news that my camp was gone. They didn’t just bulldoze it, they layered my belongings in dirt, my belongings and dirt, then they compacted it all down with the tractors, so there was no way we could ever retrieve our belongings. 

The City bulldozed everything we owned. Our bikes, bed, tables, chairs, clothes, everything. Any little thing we had to survive, our food, water, coolers – everything was gone. They layered it with mud and packed it all down with the weight of the machinery.

They left huge ruts in the forest from the tractors going through. The trees were torn from the roots. They completely destroyed the forest. You could feel the pain of the earth, how much it was hurting that day. It was heartbreaking. 

Mama Kim and Dan’s camp was down below in the gully. The workers pushed all the other camps down on top of their camp. They buried their camp. And Dan, that is exactly why he died. He was so exhausted. He went down there for days on end, digging and digging. He dug for six or seven months. All winter long, that is what he did. He hated being at the shelter. He would come in for a shower, then he would be gone again. 

Between shelters and streets after the tent city

Mel making a banner at Sanctuary Tent City

Last November, when the outreach workers came down to Sanctuary Tent City and told us we would be moving up to a new shelter called the Cove, I looked at all the other residents and said, “This is only a temporary solution. One year from now, we’re going to be back in the exact same place. But we’re going to be standing not inside our camp, but on the street with nowhere to go.”

It took them nine months to kick me out of the shelter and back on the street.

There were good things about being at the Cove, mainly the security that it brought. But they threaten you with homelessness, like it’s a punishment. They use your basic needs – shelter, warmth, food – as a threat. My whole community was at the Cove. They were inside and I was outside. It was very difficult for me. 

I am still on the streets with my boyfriend, Johnny. We’re at rock bottom, living in the SUMS (Surrey Urban Mission) parking lot. We get pushed from SUMS, to the park, to wherever. We make temporary camps that last for a day or two. 

“The City of Surrey has a lot of deaths on its hands”

None of us are okay. We’re living in forests. There is debris all through the forests, layer under layer, because we’ve been there so long.

Almost all of us from Sanctuary are back on the streets. Mama Kim and Dan lost their bed at the Cove when their cat was evicted. They set up camp down where Sanctuary was, and then Dan passed away. Mama Kim is still there, because she’s got her claws in. She put up a note when Dan passed away, saying, “Please do not do anything to my camp. There has been a death in the immediate family.”

Dan wouldn’t have died if he had housing. He died of heat exhaustion. The City of Surrey has a lot of deaths on its hands. Since they bulldozed Sanctuary, there have been three deaths just at the Cove alone. The girl that died at the Front Room, the staff thought she was sleeping. She was dead. 

Mel and Johnny after finding out their camp had been destroyed by the City

None of us are okay. We’re living in forests. There is debris all through the forests, layer under layer, because we’ve been there so long. Homelessness is expanding. We might not be in one central location now, but we are dispersed everywhere. 

Mourning the loss of Sanctuary Tent City

We fought back. But every time they put more pressure on us, people dropped off like leaves on a tree. Eventually it was just one or two leaves hanging on.

At Sanctuary, we kept each other safe. We were secluded down there, so we had to figure out how to stay safe. It was a rough go in the beginning because it was just me, Scott, and Wanda. We set up guidelines of what we thought was acceptable behaviour and what we didn’t want. We decided who came into our camp and who didn’t. We did really good. We had zero conflicts where the police were called and zero overdoses. There was no physical fighting. There is definitely more violence in the shelter than at the tent city. We managed ourselves well.

Obviously, they moved us up to the Cove because they wanted to shut our tent city down. 

We fought back. But every time they put more pressure on us, people dropped off like leaves on a tree. Eventually it was just one or two leaves hanging on.

I feel sad in my heart that we let Sanctuary go. I knew in those days before the camp was bulldozed that we should stay and stand. Who knows where we would be today if we had put up a fight. Sometimes you feel like people are not capable of pulling together in crisis. When shit gets real they run the other way. 

“We don’t got shit without each other”

Johnny speaking at a Sanctuary Tent City press conference

We are going to keep getting shit and more shit until we stick it to them. We have to bring it to their door, fight for it, and not back down. Make the City of Surrey accountable for the things that they’ve done. I saw them just two days ago taking some girl’s stuff from her. She was in tears on the street, asking them, “What am I going to do? I don’t know what to do anymore.”  

All the organizing you guys with Red Braid Alliance did since the camp was bulldozed – the COVID squats at the Rec Centre and the school, the TD Takeover, all of that – without your help, we ain’t got shit. You guys helping us, and us helping you, and us all pulling together as a whole to make it happen. We don’t got shit without each other. That’s the lesson.

Alone, you can’t win this battle. It can’t be done.

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