Jack Knox: Tent city is making Victoria a little less kind

The greatest legacy of tent city: It has drained Victoria of its compassion.

The province announced Friday that it is going for another injunction to shut down the encampment, and the consensus is “about time.” Fire regulations? Sure, if that’s the excuse they need to shut it down, fine. Tent city is way past its tipping point. The name has become synonymous with incorrigible dysfunction, drug abuse, violence and theft.

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But the real question isn’t what will happen to tent city. It’s how to pick up the pieces after it’s gone, how to deal with an us-versus-them gap that has grown into a chasm.

For years, good-hearted Victorians have been working, working, working to get us all to treat each other as human beings, to make this a community where street people aren’t just a problem to be stepped around like so much sidewalk furniture.

It has worked, at least to a degree; if the relatively well-off weren’t always certain of the line between helping and enabling, when in doubt they generally tilted toward generosity.

And then, last fall, came tent city. Maybe at the beginning some thought it would be a good idea to shove many of the hidden homeless into a highly visible place where government could no longer ignore them.

Sure enough, government did respond, housing 180 people — if only temporarily for most — in the old Boys and Girls Club building across from Central Middle School, in the mothballed juvie jail in View Royal and in the former Mount Edwards Court care home. The province also announced $30 million for affordable housing in the capital region.

Yet tent city remained, jam-packed, reinforcing the idea that homelessness is a constantly refilling cup, never to be emptied. Build a home for one camper today, another will take his place tomorrow, particularly in an inviting place like Victoria.

Likewise, the image of campers as society’s casualties — unfortunate victims of circumstance, fallen between the cracks — was overtaken by a steady diet of stories of squalour, stabbings, muggings, overdoses and other troubles, particularly in recent times with the arrival of a rougher element.

The backlash has been blistering.

“It’s dividing the community,” says Victoria councillor Charlayne Thornton-Joe. It’s even dividing the people within the organizations that deal with homelessness. She has also heard that non-profit groups that work on homelessness issues are seeing donors walk away. In other words, it’s not just the rednecks who are disgruntled.

As people get ramped up, the discourse has become more emotional, more inflammatory. “The language is getting stronger,” Thornton-Joe says.

Councillors, bombarded with flame mail, are feeling the heat. Thursday night, when neighbours appeared before city council to express their fears about a Cook Street micro-housing proposal, Thornton-Joe broke down in tears as words like “crackheads” and “junkies” were used.

That illuminates a real issue: It’s not just the troublemakers in tent city who are under the gun, it’s all the have-nots. Anyone who wrestles with addiction or mental illness is being vilified, painted with the same brush.

“We can’t paint every person at tent city as negative or a criminal,” Thornton-Joe says. Same goes for the rest of the marginalized people of Victoria. The 100-odd residents of the encampment comprise just a sliver of the poverty pie. Don’t forget all those who are truly vulnerable.

She would like to see the rhetoric turned down, see some of the focus taken off the problems of tent city (a place that, she acknowledges, troubles her, too). Note, she says, that Choices, the set-up at the youth detention centre, has been running without complaint. And give Mount Edwards Court a chance, she argues — it can’t be properly evaluated until nearby tent city is gone.

Thornton-Joe is organizing a car wash to support Our Place today. It goes from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Our Place courtyard, with local politicians, police, firefighters, media types and others doing the washing. It’s symbolic in a way, an expression of the community, not the divide.

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