Moving from "Them" to "Us"

By Leslie Campbell, March 1, 2016

A tent city on provincial land has pushed the Province a little closer toward a solution to homelessness in Victoria.

Super Intent CityAS I WRITE, there are still campers on the provincial law courts grounds, despite the recent passing of the February 25 eviction deadline and the establishment by the Province of two transitional facilities. Injunctions and counter measures are being readied, so the drama may soon move to the law courts’ interior spaces, as well as some other Province-owned land.

Super Intent City’s facebook page elucidates in part why the protest will continue: “The temporary and limited offers from the Provincial government are not enough to meet the needs of ALL members of Super InTent City and we will stand together to say NO to displacement!”

Kathy Stinson, executive director of Cool Aid, would likely agree with the first part of that statement. Cool Aid operates most of the shelters and many of the supportive housing facilities in Victoria. In an interview, she noted that all the shelters are full right now. In April, when the cold-weather shelters shut down, 120 more folks will add to the numbers already on the street—or in the camp. And while the government has also promised 40 rent supplements to help entice some campers to move out, Stinson and others have noted that in a severely tight rental market like Victoria’s, they are little help.

The camp’s facebook post also stated, “We do not want to be dispersed into the parks, forests and doorways of the City where we are more isolated and less safe.” A sense of community, of pride in creating and maintaining a mostly safe place for each other, is a big part of the residents’ reluctance to let go of their camp. It has become their home. 

Reverend Nancy Ford, Deacon to the City for Christ Church Cathedral across the street from the tent city, told me she had witnessed “amazing progress” both of the collective and in terms of individuals. “The difference in people I’ve seen is phenomenal. There’s been a focus on community and the struggle for acceptance has given opportunities to people who don’t have much. They’ve become healthier, they’ve integrated. I am seeing people just love community.”

Mayor Lisa Helps also clearly saw this aspect of the camp. She told me, “What’s happened at Super Intent City is that community has come together and brought attention to some of the big challenges that many people, not just the ones living there, are facing. They also demonstrated resourcefulness in taking care of each another. What I hope to see is that kind of community can get relocated to the Choices Transitional Home. And I know that some of the people I’ve been closest with at the tent city are taking a leadership role to try and move that [forward].”

One of Super Intent City’s important community-building activities was the daily 10 am circle meeting. I attended a few of them, including one a week prior to the appointed eviction. As usual a talking stick was passed from person to person around the 25-strong circle. Besides camp residents, there were two members of VicPD, one firefighter, Reverend Al, a couple of Cool Aid workers, and the new co-manager of the “Choices” transitional facility at the former Youth Detention Centre in View Royal.

Much of the talk that day centred around being safe with fire, as there had been a few tent fires, even with all the rain. But a policeman named Dan also spoke, promising to let them know in advance of any actions planned around carrying out the eviction. “This is good news,” said Reverend Al Tysick when the stick reached him. 

Resident Joseph (CJ) Reville said he was going to Choices Transitional Home where he intends to organize a team of homeless people towards building microhousing, so they are ready when “land manifests” (he hopes the Anglican Church of BC will come through). But he also plans to stand in support of those who aren’t ready to leave Super Intent City—he is willing to get arrested if it comes to that.

It was a pleasant meeting, illustrating the camp’s ethic of love and acceptance. Everyone was respectful, positive, and felt heard. During the hour-and-a-half-long meeting, the talking stick made a few complete turns around the circle—until everyone said what they needed to and felt ready to leave the circle.

Later that same day, a block away, I attended another meeting, one that left me wishing someone had thought to bring a talking stick.

It was an open house and presentation for the neighbours of Mount Edwards Court, which the Province has purchased and where Cool Aid will operate a facility for 38 homeless people. A tour of the former nursing home’s main floor showed a large inner courtyard surrounded by small, basic rooms with en suite bathrooms (showers down the hall), and a communal dining area. 

While some neighbours spoke up to say they welcomed the homeless to their neighbourhood, quite a few others were clearly angry they had not been consulted and fearful for their safety and security. They spoke out of turn, often refusing to wait until an answer was given by representatives from Cool Aid and BC Housing. The latter were only partially effective in reassuring folks that housing 38 of the campers, providing them with meals and other supports, and having three staff on duty at all times, would be less threatening and disruptive than the outdoor camp of 100 people down the street.

There was no talking stick that evening, but later, Kathy Stinson told me Cool Aid plans to take up the tradition of the morning circle meetings for Mount Edwards’ residents. A neighbourhood committee will also be established—and hopefully will employ a talking stick. 

 

RECENTLY I WAS ABLE TO WATCH Us & Them, a riveting film —and labour of love—by Krista Loughton about four people living on Victoria’s streets. If you haven’t made it to one of the earlier screenings, try to attend the screening on Friday, March 11 at the Vic Theatre (doors at 8 pm). Co-directed by Jennifer Abbott (The Corporation), Us & Them was six years in the making. Each of the film’s subjects has an addiction and a host of other problems, yet each also possesses surprising strengths that surface regularly. One can’t help but be charmed by their intelligence and humour—and heartbroken by their traumas and tragedies.

At the start of the film, Dawnellda Gauthier (aka Momma D) is sleeping in a Victoria parkade stairwell; Stan Hunter has a cot in an alleyway near Wellburns Foods; Eddie Golko gratefully beds down in CIBC’s ATM area; and Karen Montgrand relies on a rudimentary campsite in bushes skirting a vacant lot. It’s eye-opening and disturbing to see Victoria from this perspective.

Loughton includes an interview with physician Gabor Maté, who has worked extensively with people living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. He says all addicts on the street (and elsewhere) have been abused, traumatized or neglected as children. This is often no fault of the parent; they’ve simply been faced with so much stress they cannot be truly present for their child. I’ve heard Maté speak before and read his award-winning book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction (2009). But it was timely to be reminded of how we need to support families to help stem the tide of damage—and support those who suffer it.

I asked Loughton for her thoughts on Super Intent City. She feels it put needed pressure on the provincial government, but that the government’s response is, in effect, a “band-aid solution,” not a permanent one. “There’s a lot of work to be done yet,” said Loughton. Having watched her subjects go through the system, she knows “it takes a lot of care to get them to a place where they can choose to go a different way.”

Fortunately, as she points out, all the research shows it actually costs about half as much to give people permanent homes and wrap-around care than it does to leave them on the street, which results in high-cost use of emergency and other social services.

After the March screening, Us & Them won’t be back in Victoria for some time. Loughton is about to embark on a cross-Canada tour, made possible by the generosity of Ruth and Don James, who were in the audience at a recent Sidney showing. In the Q&A following that screening, when Krista mused aloud about wishing she could take the film on tour, the couple offered her a few hundred thousands in air-miles (they travel a lot). 

“That was enough to make me decide to do it,” says Loughton. Karen Montgrand will go as well. One very special stop along the way will be La Loche, Saskatchewan, Karen’s hometown. The tour will culminate in Ottawa in May, with a screening being organized by the federal Green Party. The March 11 screening is also the launch of a crowd-funding campaign to help cover tour expenses.

Leslie Campbell attended the block party at Super Intent City on “eviction day” and was pleased to witness the residents’ joy and strength and to see the wider community joining in celebration. Check focusonline.ca for updates.