Marilou Gagnon: Closing tent cities during an overdose crisis might be dangerous

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      On Friday, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Ward Branch granted a temporary injunction as well as an enforcement order to force the closing of a Saanich tent city (known as Camp Namegans) in Regina Park and the displacement of more than 100 homeless people with nowhere to go.

      Over the past four months, Camp Namegans has been providing a sanctuary to people who are in desperate need of housing in Greater Victoria. I became involved with Camp Namegans when I moved to B.C. in June. As a nurse and researcher who focuses on harm reduction, social justice, and access to care for marginalized communities, it was a natural fit.

      Prior to living in Saanich, I had been involved in running an overdose-prevention site in Ottawa and advocating for nurses at the frontline of the overdose crisis in B.C. Exposed to realities of the overdose crisis and dominant media discourse about tent cities, I came to Camp Namegans ready to intervene. I expected chaos. I expected meetings to be interrupted by residents screaming, “Help! overdose!” I expected sirens, first responders, paramedics. I expected loss and grief.

      None of that happened.

      Over time, I have been witness to the positive impacts of the camp on the residents. Every day, they are less stressed, happier, and healthier; they are actively participating in meetings and camp activities; they are accessing services more easily; and they are building a sense of community and working together to look after themselves, one another, and their homes.

      As autonomous spaces, tent cities allow homeless people to exercise self-determination over their homes and their lives. In turn, this improves their general health and well-being. This stands in stark contrast to institutionalized spaces like shelters and supportive housing, which leave very little room for homeless people to make decisions about their lives and connect with each other.

      On average, 100 people are dying of an overdose in B.C. every month, four people every day. Last year alone, there were more than 1,400 overdose deaths in this province. Something was definitely working at Camp Namegans, because in the course of four months, there has been no overdose deaths and only a few overdoses, all reversed by camp residents.

      Tent cities can be very effective at preventing overdoses and overdose deaths. They give residents a home, including a sense of community, safety, and belonging, which, in turn, decreases isolation, the stress of homelessness, and the need to use drugs. They increase access to harm-reduction services, harm-reduction supplies, naloxone, and naloxone training. They create a safer space for residents who use drugs in the presence of or near someone who can intervene in the case of an overdose.

      Of course, overdoses and overdose deaths can still happen in tent cities. After all, the drug supply is toxic in B.C. and we are in the midst of a public-health emergency. However, they are more effective than shelters and supportive housing at saving people’s lives.

      In my affidavit to Branch, I shared my observations and expert opinion as a harm-reduction nurse. If he truly considered the harms of forcefully closing Camp Namegans, I believe that his decision fails to reflect that. In my opinion, the decision sets a dangerous legal precedent in B.C. Homelessness is a social and a health issue, not a legal issue.

      This decision proves (once again) that the legal system is not equipped to understand the complexity of tent cities. A system that creates more harms to the most marginalized and vulnerable groups in our society is not a just system.       

      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.