Anger is often directed at the leaders of tent cities, but they seem to get results.
A HEAVY TURQUOISE NECKLACE complements the dress that Chrissy Brett is pulling on as she changes out of sweat pants and heavy boots that have warded off the chilly morning air at the temporary homeless encampment on West Saanich Road.
Brett is dressing for a meeting with Saanich Police Department representatives and, given the prickly history between homeless campers and Saanich police—including Brett’s arrest after she blew an air horn at a firefighter—she is not sure how it will go.
It’s another day of negotiation, media interviews and searching for the next likely camping spot for Brett, a compelling and polarizing figure who first came to the attention of Vancouver Island residents when the 2015/2016 tent city sprang up beside Victoria’s courthouse.
Since then, as the homeless camp has moved around Greater Victoria, Brett has acted as spokeswoman and advocate, inevitably becoming a lightning rod for the criticism and abuse that comes with the emotionally fraught issue.
Called Mama Bear by campers, Brett, 43, sees her role more as a buffer than a leader. Decisions are shared, rules are enforced and a degree of protection is offered the most vulnerable, she explained.
Campers agreed that consensus guides the camp. “But, it’s very helpful to have Chrissy as a spokesperson—and it’s time we let a woman lead,” said one man as he helped distribute juice made from donated fruit and fresh vegetables.
While some taxpayers, renters and homeowners complain bitterly about crime, discarded needles, and safety concerns when tent cities move into the area, Brett contends that most of the problems come from hangers-on and “weekend warriors.”
“I think this has worked really well,” she said, looking around at the scattered tents. “Well, maybe not from the public’s point of view, but, look at the no-violence agreement that we have. It’s created and enforced by people here, so there’s that buy-in,” she said, while patting Loyalty, an overweight, mixed-breed dog. That view is not shared by RCMP and Saanich police who say that trespassing, open drug use and theft is rampant in the vicinity of encampments. While the camps certainly draw attention to homelessness, the hostility they provoke can be destructive and divisive, and anger is often directed at leaders, who are accused of exacerbating the problem.
A recent letter to the Times Colonist accused activists of turning the homeless into political pawns. A Saanich petition—calling for illegal tent cities to be shut down—pointed the finger of blame at political activists. Social media includes references to Chrissy and her crusaders, while a Facebook page, opposing tent cities and temporary modular housing, is crammed with bitter comments accusing homeless campers of trying to get something for nothing at the expense of law-abiding taxpayers.
Kathy Stinson, executive director of Victoria Cool Aid Society, which operates 472 units of housing in the city (with 166 more in development), said tent cities are polarizing because they make homelessness visible. “People don’t always want to be confronted with these issues in our community. People on the margins are saying ‘hey I am here, recognize me,’” she said.
Many of the campers have disabilities, mental health problems or addictions, and both supporters and critics agree that a certain amount of organization and leadership is needed for such a disparate group.
Reverend Al Tysick of the Dandelion Society said the homeless are a “hellish group to organize,” and, during the courthouse tent city, there was major conflict between Brett and some campers. “It certainly needs leadership in respect of pulling together as much as you can and [Brett] did that,” Tysick said. There were complaints about Brett coming in as an outsider telling them what to do, and she is often criticized for her showmanship and unwillingness to listen to the other side, said Tysick, but, against the backdrop of broken government promises, he understands why radical tactics are necessary. However, Brett’s voice is weakened by a lack of support from community, church or First Nations leaders, Tysick said. “You need people who have got some credibility in the community, not just the shit-disturbers,” he said.
Also, Brett’s group of followers, despite consuming much of the oxygen, is dwindling in size, while unofficial camps proliferate around downtown Victoria, said Tysick, whose organization deals with some of the most needy.
Brett believes she does listen to critics and emphasizes she is willing to work with anyone interested in bettering life for the homeless population. Her work is based on integrated case management and experience gained from years of working as an advocate, combined with the teachings of elders from the Nuxalk and other First Nations, she said.
“Some authorities are totally willing to work with me and there are others, like Saanich PD and the RCMP, that see absolutely no value in community policing, which, in this day and age I think is pretty dangerous. They’re the old-school, military type,” said Brett, quickly pointing out that not all Saanich cops are hostile and that the Victoria police department sets an example of more enlightened policing.
She also dismisses a frequently-repeated story that she is not really homeless.
The story, however, has its roots in truth, for when she first felt compelled to light a sacred fire at the courthouse, she did have a home up-Island. But in July last year, the landlord took back the house and, because she was spending increasing amounts of time at the tent city, Brett decided to move her two youngest children to Victoria.
“I found a place and then in October I was cut off social assistance for investigation of fraud, so, for four months, I had no income and I lost the place. Then they decided there was no basis for the fraud investigations, but they decided the kids were not with me for 50 percent of the time, so they pay me as a single person on welfare—I get $382 a month,” Brett said. She gets no shelter allowance (an additional $375). “So I am homeless.”
Paul Christopher, founder of Better Choices Outreach, a group that provides comforts such as cigarettes and toothbrushes to homeless people, has watched Brett in action since the courthouse tent city. “I had some very good teachers at that tent city and one of them was Chrissy,” he said. “I applaud what she is doing…She has great leadership skills. She’s very good at dealing with the police, fire department and media and she is passionate about what she does.” Brett has the ability and personality to hold things together when dealing with a difficult group of people, Christopher said, echoing others who refer to Brett’s charisma.
In Nanaimo, where DisconTent city swelled to 300 and local hostility is palpable, campers were being guided by Surrey-based Alliance Against Displacement.
Organizer Amber McGrath, who is not homeless, said the group helps educate the homeless community about their rights, rather than act as leaders. “Just because they are homeless doesn’t mean that they don’t have a voice and that they can’t politically make changes. We are trying to empower people to take control of their own autonomy, their own lives,” she said.
Initial local government promises fell through and that is when the Alliance offered its experience and advice, McGrath said. That relationship has been extremely beneficial, “although I know a lot of people are angry with them right now,” she said, adding that people have spat at her, thrown bottles and yelled obscenities.
But it has been worth it, she said. “[The Alliance] helped empower these people and showed what could be done through protest. I saw people’s confidence grow and I saw people get some sense of stability,” she said.
There is no doubt that tent cities have played a major part in forcing government to act on the homelessness crisis.
Since the disbandment of the courthouse camp in Victoria, 292 units of supportive housing have been created at 844 Johnson Street, Mount Edwards Court on Vancouver Street, the former Super 8 Hotel on Douglas Street and the former Tally Ho Hotel on Douglas Street, plus additional shelter beds. In addition, Our Place Society is on the verge of opening a new therapeutic recovery community for 50 men in the former youth detention facility in View Royal.
The Province has promised 2,000 units of modular housing, with a mix of temporary and permanent units, to be distributed around BC. So far, in the Capital Regional District, only 21 units for homeless Indigenous women are slated for Victoria because of difficulty in identifying suitable plots of land.
In Nanaimo, 170 temporary modular housing units are on order to be placed on city-owned land and on another lot purchased by the Province for $2 million. In all, $3.6 million is being invested by the Province. Pacifica Housing will operate the supportive housing.
This is a testament to the efficacy of tent cities, said McGrath. “I am so proud of them that they have done this. It’s really empowering to say ‘look at what you people did. You got housing,’” she said. “It’s not enough for the people that we have here, but it’s a darn good start.”
Tysick agrees that tent cities have raised awareness and brought benefits, even though they take away from public sympathy, especially when campsites are left in disarray. “Without them, you wouldn’t be doing this story. It’s a constant topic around the council table. I think it’s doing a lot of good and it’s causing some money [for housing] to come to the city,” he said.
Stinson agrees the tactics have forced governments into action.“Keeping it front and centre has been very effective. It has certainly been constantly in the news,” she noted.
The bottom line, however, is that although the new units have made a dent, the idea of permanent homes for all that need them remains a distant dream. Brett appreciates the improvements that have been made, but, repeating her homes-not-shelters mantra, she said there is still a long road ahead. “Unfortunately, I think tent cities are necessary until government creates enough affordable options for people,” she said.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.