Expert Nurses: Taking tent cities to court is wrong, and here’s why

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      By Marilou Gagnon and Bernie Pauly

      On July 24, the District of Saanich announced that it had begun legal proceedings necessary to obtain a court-ordered injunction to shut down a Saanich tent city known as Camp Namegans.

      This news came one week after Nanaimo’s DisconTent City appeared in court to defend itself against the city’s attempt to secure a court-ordered injunction. In 2016, after two court hearings, a court-ordered injunction led to the closing of Victoria's Super Intent City, the courthouse-lawn tent city, but it also set a new precedent: municipalities cannot close tent cities without providing an alternative. And the only acceptable alternative here is affordable and accessible housing.

      Camp Namegans is at least the sixth major tent city to pop up in British Columbia in less than three years. Like other tent cities, it is a direct response to poverty, lack of housing, and social supports. Tent cities are a grassroots effort to provide sanctuary to people who experience homelessness.

      In Greater Victoria, a new report shows that the number of people who experience homelessness is continuing to grow, from 1,387 in 2016 to 1,525 in 2018. Tent cities remain the best, safest, and, in some cases, only option for many. Removing this option through an injunction is not a policy to end homelessness but a policy that displaces people from a protective community into the epicentre of a  raging overdose epidemic and ongoing affordable-housing crisis. So until we provide decent and dignified housing, tent cities provide an option that is safer than streets, alleyways, and shelters.

      As expert nurses who conduct research on the topic and work with people who are most affected by homelessness, we consider that taking tent cities to court is the wrong way to address the issue, and here’s why. In the absence of the most fundamental determinant of health and basic human rights to accessible, affordable, and culturally apporpriate housing for everyone who needs it, tent cities can actually mitigate the experience of homelessness and the negative health impact of living in shelters and on the streets.

      Furthermore, tent cities can decrease the harms caused by social isolation and provide a sense of community—and in turn, improve health more generally. Consistent with many housing and harm reduction programs, people can and do move from tent cities into housing and other social programs because tent cities provide a relief from constant moving and an opportunity to focus on more than day-to-day survival as well as opportunities to connect with services.

      From a social standpoint, tent cities also play an important role in promoting self-determination, community building, and greater awareness of issues affecting people who experience homelessness.

      Although municipalities want to convince us that tent cities are expensive, expenditures grow exponentially when municipalities decide to work against, instead of with, tent cities. Investing hundreds of thousands of dollars to build the legal grounds to file an injunction with the B.C. Supreme Court is the wrong investment. Over the past two years, at least five such legal battles have been mounted in B.C. This money could and should be invested in solutions that meet the needs of people who experience homelessness.

      Back in 2016, it cost almost a million dollars in legal fees to take Super Intent City to court. In Saanich, this money could serve to build a tiny house for every person that resides at Camp Namegans and provide access to water, sanitation facilities, and kitchen space—while we work collectively to create more permanent solutions.

      At a minimum, municipal and provincial governments supported by public health should work with tent cities to ensure they meet basic health and safety standards.

      There is simply no evidence or justification for spending that money on a courtroom battle while people who experience homelessness remain unhoused. 

      Marilou Gagnon is an associate professor at the University of Victoria's school of nursing and president of the Harm Reduction Nurses Association. Bernie Pauly is an associate professor at UVic's school of nursing and scientist at the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research.