20 June 2008

Homeless: A "battle for the commons"

This story in The Tyee today reports on the landmark case before BC's Supreme Court on the right of homeless people to sleep on public property.

Like the comments by homeless people in the study I quote further below, these knife through my heart. I know the sense of community these people are talking about and feel the injustice of their communities being ripped apart by those who are simultaneously materially well-off and deficit in compassion and wisdom.

Much has changed for Natalie Adams since the Victoria police dismantled a short-lived tent city a few blocks from the provincial legislature in 2005. She's off drugs, she has a place to live and a job helping other people get off the streets.

She also has an 18-month-old son, whose very existence she attributes to the city shutting down the tent city that flourished briefly in a city park two and a half years ago.

"When they broke up tent city I was camping out [alone] in Beacon Hill Park," said Adams... "I ended up having a sexual assault and got pregnant. It wouldn't have happened if they left the tent city alone."

On June 16, she brought her son to the opening day of a B.C. Supreme Court trial that will test the constitutionality of Victoria's anti-camping bylaws and the injunction the city used to remove the tent city.

Adams's son is a beautiful boy and she's thrilled to be raising him, she said, but it shows the dangers people face when they lack secure shelter. For a brief time, she'd found some security in the tent city, she said.

"It was nice having a brother and sisterhood, feeling like you were a part of and not a social pariah," she said. "It was really nice. We had unity, we had safety, we had the comfort of each other. We could go to sleep and knew we were safe."

Natalie's comments run similar to those found in Gordon Laird's superb study Shelter: Homelessness in a growth Economy (PDF).

Few studies attract my cynical attention these days, since most ignore the voices and wisdom of the persons they are studying. This one, funded by the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership, was different. Its most notable section focuses on Toronto's Tent City, with much devoted to statements by people who saw their home destroyed by City bulldozers.

As a Metis woman with no fixed address, Boni isn’t convinced that Canada has much changed from the days of Indian Agents, work-for-food programs, social neglect and heavy-handed government control. The historical recurrence is striking: Indians, Metis and homeless people have a surprising amount in common. “My grandfather put down on Crown land and claimed it,” she says. “That’s what is happening here.”

“We infantilize these people,” she says of the shelter-based system. “We take independent people who lose everything. Limit their freedoms, feed them, give them therapy. But we don’t give them last-month’s rent, nor do they get to choose where they live, even if they do get social housing.”

“So we end up with a mental health case who wants to tell everyone to go screw themselves,” says Boni. “That’s the story of Tent City.”

“The trouble with social housing is that people still don’t own the place or have a stake in it,” Boni argues. “At least people here own their shacks – and many people can live more independently than we give them credit for...”

“I don’t think it’s okay to live in illicit squats – but, personally, Tent City was one of the greatest experiences of my life,” Boni says. It was the unlikely beauty of the place – the cultivated gardens, art installations, and collective bonds – that always came as a surprise. “I liked the physical labour - chopping wood, building things. You moved with a rhythm of time, the cycles of the outdoors. There was a community that we all miss, however crazed it was” (pp46 - 50).

If you're interested in homelessness or the purported connection between mental illness and homelessness, you should read Laird's study. I can't praise it enough.

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