Camp Namegans shows authorities are fighting a losing battle against tent cities and it must stop

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      Saanich tent city, known as Camp Namegans, is the sixth major tent city to pop up in British Columbia in under three years.

      Camp Namegans is no different than other tent cities. It is a direct result of an unprecedented housing crisis in B.C.—a crisis created by an unchecked housing market, housing prices spiralling upward, low vacancy rates, and the highest rents in country. As a result of this crisis, the number of people who experience homelessness continues to grow every year and, for many, tent cities remain the best and safest option.

      Tent cities are not breaking the law. In 2009, the Court of Appeal for British Columbia unanimously ruled that “prohibiting homeless people from erecting any form of temporary overhead shelter at night—including tents, tarps attached to trees, boxes or other structure—violates their constitutional rights to life, liberty and security of the person under section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms” (Victoria (City) v. Adams, 2009 BCCA 563). And yet cities continue to battle tent cities instead of addressing the housing crisis itself.

      Following in the footsteps of other cities such as those in Nanaimo, Maple Ridge, and Surrey, Saanich is fighting a losing battle. Instead of working towards solutions and acknowledging that tent cities exist because of a housing crisis—not as an act of defiance—it is pouring money and resources into policing the camp and the area (estimated cost: $600,000-$700,000 in police overtime). In addition, Saanich is intimidating camp residents via the fire department (estimated cost undisclosed), file fire orders (estimated cost undisclosed), and by answering incoming calls from neighbours and business owners (estimated cost: $10,000).

      Yesterday (July 8), the city announced that the final cost of the camp could approach $1 million. Interestingly, that includes $250,000 for what the Times Colonist reported was yet-to-be-installed basic-hygiene options (shower and bathroom).

      When tent cities are constructed as risky and illegitimate spaces, they are managed as such. And they cost a lot of money. This must stop.

      Tent cities are not risky. When provided with the proper support and equipment, they can meet fire and structural safety requirements. When provided with proper harm-reduction supplies such as naloxone, they save lives. When provided with water, sanitation facilities, and cooking devices, they contribute to the well-being of residents and public order. When seen as a legitimate answer to the housing crisis and a step toward solutions that are driven by the community, they can be embraced instead of being battled.

      As long as the number of people who experience homelessness exceeds available housing and shelters continue to offer temporary fixes and often fail to provide decent and dignified housing, tent cities will continue to exist.

      Fighting them is not the answer.

      It is not a good use of public money and, sadly, it only serves to ignite anger, fear, and hate toward people who experience homelessness.

      Public money should be used to support, not punish, people who experience homelessness. Cities like Portland and Seattle adopted this approach and have seen better outcomes all around. There is no reason that the same approach wouldn’t work in Saanich.

      Marilou Gagnon is an associate professor at the University of Victoria school of nursing, president of the Harm Reduction Nurses Association, and an organizer with Camp Namegans.