(Photo credit: Peter Kim | Anita Place tent city | June 2017)
For the first time in British Columbia’s history, an encampment of people affected by homelessness withstood the headwinds of local government, bylaw officials, and the bigotry and violence of certain members of the community to remain standing for an entire year.
Anita Place has become Canada's longest-standing, community-organized public encampment in living memory. May 2 was the anniversary of the tent city, which was set up to house those sheltering outdoors in Maple Ridge, but also as an act of protest—a visible symbol of government failure and the inability to afford safe and accessible housing to those in need.
(Photo credit: Peter Kim | One of the first tents being set up at Anita Place | May 2, 2017)
This is significant. It is evidence that the rights, health, and safety of marginalized communities can and should supersede local bylaws barring them from public space, and that the rights of people to protect themselves from the harms of exposure and constant displacement should take clear precedence over the disdain of those who lack compassion and an understanding of the current housing crisis. This is a crisis we as a Canadian society have created, and tolerated, for far too long.
Housing Justice for all.
(Interactive map. As of May 17, only Anita Place tent cities remains.)
Pivot was there on day one in support and solidarity with the people who braved threats of violence and discrimination in order to ensure the safety of their community. We were there when the fencing around the property known as the St. Ann lands was breached and the first tents were erected. The backlash was almost immediate, yet those who call Anita Place home remained undeterred.
(Photo credit: Peter Kim | Tracy Scott and Loretta Hauck | May 2, 2017)
On the ground, activists and those affected by homelessness were organizing and resolute against the bigotry of certain residents of Maple Ridge whose intolerance was ever-present in person and online. In the court of law, there was another battle brewing.
On two separate occasion, Pivot and residents of Anita Place fought off attempts to shut down the encampment and deprive people of the safety and security it afforded. Last October, the City of Maple Ridge filed a second injunction application to have the camp shut down, claiming the site was unsafe for campers. It was here Pivot acted as counsel to the residents of Anita Place to defend their interests and right to health and safety at BC Supreme Court.
(Photo credit: Peter Kim | Pivot lawyer Anna Cooper arriving at BC Supreme Court | November 2017)
We were successful. The City and Pivot Legal Society signed a consent order allowing the camp to remain—a vindication for those struggling with homelessness and their advocates, and an admission that the benefits of encampment outweigh any perceived harms argued by the City.
We cannot blame homeless people for using candles in tents, if we don’t provide them with any way to stay warm. (Anna Cooper, Pivot Legal Society lawyer)
Subsequently, Pivot has advocated with the campers for a warming tent, modular washrooms, new tents, sleeping bags, and a meal program. And Anita Place has continued to provide safety, support, and harm reduction for vulnerable populations amid an overdose epidemic unprecedented in scale within BC’s history.
(Click graph above for interactive data)
But for the security afforded by this community of compassion, there would have undoubtedly been more deaths, as sheltering in isolation significantly increases the harms to safety.
In partnership with videographer Geoff Webb, Pivot has been chronicling the struggle and strength of Anita Place residents for months. A forthcoming documentary will provide a rare glimpse into life inside the encampment and the ways in which this community has both provided shelter and political resistance while beset by a tide of government apathy and social intolerance.
(Photo: Screen grab from upcoming Anita Place documentary)
It is their courage that will benefit all people struggling with homelessness and poverty, as the sheer presence of the encampment is a visible sign of the failures of government policy and a clarion call to build affordable, accessible housing for those who need it.
But the work is far from over. Even as the provincial government moves to build 55 modular housing units in Maple Ridge—a mere fraction of what is required—community opposition has persisted.
This cannot stand in the way of progress, and we won’t let it.