As COVID-19 cases reach all-time highs across the country, so too are the number of Canadians experiencing homelessness. Families and individuals who were able to pay rent before the pandemic now find themselves homeless. Instead of providing these people with homes during this difficult period, governments across the country have been cracking down on tent cities. We say: HANDS OFF TENT CITIES!
A new type of homelessness
In an October CBC article, Halifax outreach worker Eric Jonsson identified the financial devastation exacerbated by the pandemic as a “new type of homelessness,” with families and individuals who were otherwise paying their rent and mortgage before the pandemic now out on the streets. “There’s a lot of people who are newly homeless and the main driving factor is there’s just no place for them to live,” said Jonsson. Jonsson’s observation is applicable beyond just Halifax; tent cities, or homeless encampments, are appearing in every major city in unprecedented numbers. Even places with already existing ‘tent cities’ are seeing more encampments appear in new places. The decision of whether to stay in overcrowded shelters where social distancing is impossible and PPE is scarce, or sleep on the streets is becoming a question that many working people will have to face.
Even before the pandemic, the average Canadian was spending about half of their income on housing, and unsurprisingly, that number moved closer to 80 per cent in Vancouver and the Greater Toronto Area. And with about half of Canadians living paycheque to paycheque, any significant drop in income would threaten millions of livelihoods. As we have seen from the explosion of tent cities, the pandemic did just that. Millions of Canadians have lost their jobs since April, while others have seen reduced hours or ‘temporary layoffs’ with no end or security in sight.
Trudeau attempted to calm the waters with CERB, though many did not qualify based on their employment situation the year before. This has precisely led to a situation where many are falling through the cracks. Clearly what was needed was massive investment in social housing to provide emergency homes for the tens of thousands of people being thrown onto the streets. Instead, various levels of government have spent billions on corporate bailouts and have rushed through ill-advised reopening plans, bending to corporate pressure.
State repression and working class solidarity
Unprepared to deal with a growing homelessness crisis, governments across the country are now resorting to a strong-arm approach, attempting to physically push the issue out of sight. Homeless encampments have been forced to move all around the various cities by the police; they have been forced to relocate, broken up, destroyed, and homeless people have been led on a cruel, endless trek from one area of the city to another with no actual solution. On Dec.r 7 we had the sorry spectacle of Valérie Plante, the supposedly “left-wing” mayor of Montreal, sending in the riot police to dismantle the tent city on Notre-Dame street. In her press conference, she said that this was the “right thing to do”. This was only one month after Plante released Montreal’s 2021 budget, in which housing was cut by $13 million, and policing was increased by $14 million.
In Victoria, homeless residents formed encampments on a two-block stretch on Pandora street, near the city’s biggest homeless support facility, called Our Place, and then were asked to leave by the police. Victoria’s homeless then moved about six blocks down to Topaz Park, which was big enough for physical spacing between tents. After a few weeks, however, residents from the nearby neighbourhoods started to complain and the city reversed their recent decision to ease public camping laws. Those who didn’t move quick enough were chased out by police.
The Victoria tent cities have now relocated to Beacon Hill Park, where they were met with an incredible act of solidarity by a local support community that tried to install temporary showers—and who raised ten thousand dollars to do so. Not even a day after these showers were up did the police show up to remove the showers and confiscate supplies such as medical kits, blankets, food, and camping gear.
Acts of solidarity, also seen in Toronto, are an instinct of a working class that recognizes its shared struggle, especially in times of crisis. Last month, carpenter Khaleel Seivwright was sent a warning letter by the city of Toronto while he was building mobile shelters for the city’s homeless. The letter said that Seivwright could be charged with the ‘cost of removal.’ A street nurse interviewed by the CBC called the shelters a life-saving measure while the city fails drastically. Each shelter, lined with fibreglass, could make the difference between life or death as the cold winter approaches. But not only is the city failing drastically, they are actively working against any efforts to shelter the homeless.
HANDS OFF TENT CITIES!
With bitter cold weather setting in, thousands of homeless Canadians face a grim situation. The politicians seem to think that homelessness can be policed out of existence. But the reality is that many of these people have nowhere else to go. This is why we say: HANDS OFF TENT CITIES!
The dismantling of the tent cities is an attack on the working class as a whole. In many cases, it has been city workers who have been sent to dismantle the tent cities. The labour movement as a whole must refuse to partake in dismantling tent cities and must actively resist any initiative to use the police to crack down on homeless camps.
Obviously living in a tent city is not a long-term solution. While this seems to be rocket science to politicians in power, there is a simple and clear solution: house the homeless immediately! There are tens of thousands of empty homes sitting vacant across the country, as well as empty hotels. This problem is therefore not due to a lack of housing, but due to private ownership of housing. Expropriating empty homes to house the homeless, combined with massive investment in social housing, can act as a stop-gap measure to prevent disaster.
But none of this is a solution in the long run. The existence of mass homelessness at the same time as the government has unleashed the most massive public spending program in the history of the country should be enough to tip us off that capitalism is rotten to the core. It’s time for us to put an end to the capitalist system which is driving us into the ground.