Seated on a folding camp chair under a ceiling of blue and grey tarps, Ana McBee warns me to be careful.
Not about drugs or theft or anything like that.
"There are wild turkeys here," she says, visibly holding back laughter. She then lets out a startling gobble-yodel, turning her head with a smile as voices from other tents answer with bizarre birdcalls of their own.
Needless to say, McBee has made friends living on the lawn of Victoria, Canada's courthouse. Over the half hour I spend in her makeshift home, a handful of visitors stop by to ask for a band-aid or to bum a smoke. She says the constant buzz of activity can be challenging at times, but for the most part, it helps her feel supported—a feeling she doesn't get from an emergency homeless shelter.
"Being alone and just being fucked with daily didn't feel good," McBee tells VICE, recounting conflicts with cops and shelter managers, and of bylaws against park camping past 7 AM. She speaks rapidly, sometimes losing a train of thought, then picking it back up again. "The physical stress of having to carry your stuff around, set up, and tear down every single day, it consumes so much of your energy and time… We grouped together, and things became easier."
Victoria's tent city, now seven months old, has become a contested symbol of British Columbia's housing crisis and growing wealth divide. Police and neighbors say it's an eyesore and a safety hazard. Anti-poverty activists call it a de facto refugee camp, blasting the province for stagnant social assistance rates and not doing enough on affordable housing. While much of BC is busy freaking out over the skyrocketing value of multimillion dollar homes in Vancouver, people living in the camp say they've been pushed out of that market, abused by social service providers, and have no choice but to set up camp in public.
In a surprise decision last month, a BC Supreme Court judge agreed with the campers—at least temporarily. When the province sought an injunction to dismantle the camp, Justice Christopher Hinkson wrote the defendants "simply have nowhere to move to." It's significant, since the province had already put extra money into new temporary shelters. Hinkson found many of the campers have needs that aren't being met in the shelter system, or have been banned from shelters altogether. All this means the tents get to stay until at least September 7, when the injunction case will get another day in court.
With a giant cathedral on one side and the courthouse steps on the other, one observer tells me tent city is resisting church and state on all sides. The camp itself is divided into corners, separating drug users and alcoholics from abstainers. There's a central food storage, where volunteers often drop off sandwiches, and a row of three porta-potties in the back. Some areas are fenced off with pallets donated by local businesses, giving off a shantytown vibe. Running water and flushing toilets are also in the works.
Of the dozen campers VICE spent time with, most had a history of street homelessness and have sworn off the shelter system. Some were renting apartments just a few months ago, while others have spent decades in doorways and parks. "We're kind of die-hard when it comes to being autonomous, because nothing else works for us," says McBee. "We cannot—will not—deal with imposed rules that don't work for us."
For Jaime Green, it's the rules against couples staying together that keep her out of shelters; she shares a tent with her partner, Mark. When we meet, she's repurposing one of the pallets in effort to mount a basket of strawberry plants already bearing tiny yellow-green fruit. "If I had space, I'd be growing peas and other shoots, too," she says.
Green has a college degree and years of experience working for the government. She says a mental breakdown and a misunderstanding with police led her to the streets a few years ago. She's still looking for a place she can afford with BC's disability allowance, but she's not getting her hopes up.
"We're actually able to look at apartments, whereas before we were just so exhausted from getting ourselves fed and keeping our shit together, we didn't have time to go and look for a place to live," she says.
But when it comes to landing an apartment, living at tent city has been both a blessing and a curse. "We just applied for a place downtown the other day, and I put no fixed address. And that looks just horrible," she recalls. "And then I said, 'Well, I'm at tent city.' And with all the shite press that tent city's got, it's like, then we're backpedaling."
That bad press includes reports of stabbings and break-ins in the area, as well as frequent noise complaints after midnight. Police are quick to point to a 46 percent spike in disturbance calls within a three-block radius. There's even a small wooden memorial in tribute to the one man who died of an overdose on site.
These are the same reasons places like Nanaimo, Abbotsford, and Surrey are fighting tent pop-ups with any available resources. Abbotsford served eviction notices to campers in February and updated bylaws to ban camping structures during daylight hours, even as shelters are at capacity. Surrey also cracked down on tents in April. In Nanaimo, a small camp under a bridge was recently scraped into a dumpster by massive excavators.
And yet Victoria's tent city defies its stigma as a place of crime and misery. There's face paint, banana bread, and, yes, wild turkey calls. And when those goofy gobbles echo through the camp, you can practically hear the hard-won self-determination.
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