Encampments are homes, stop tearing them down

As summer is finally creeping towards us, many people are turning their thoughts to holiday planning. 

Over the last couple of decades, camping has become a budget friendly family favourite. Getting to enjoy the outdoors, quiet nights with loved ones around the campfire and of course a s’more or two has become one of the top Canadian vacation experiences.

But with camping comes trust. Trust of the other people who are enjoying the campground right alongside you. Imagine for a minute that you leave your campsite for the day to enjoy a local attraction or go to the beach and when you return your entire campsite (your tents, sleeping bags, clothing, even your flashlights and what we left of last night's firewood) is gone. All of the items you spent time collecting and taking good care of so they could make your holiday a bit easier and more enjoyable, treated like garbage and thrown into a dumpster. Imagine how vulnerable and upset you would feel in that moment knowing that someone came into your space and treated your belongings like they were garbage and unimportant or unnecessary for you to survive your trip. 

The truth is, as upsetting as someone putting all of your camping gear in the garbage is, it is only a tiny bit of what people feel when their encampments are torn down and thrown away. 

When you go on your camping trip, you have a home to go back to. You have the ability to collect new items to use for your next trip. You may even have an insurance policy that could cover the cost of replacing your items. You will be fine. The same cannot be said for Calgarians living and sleeping outside in our city. 

Living on the streets of Calgary is not for the weak or faint of heart. Between the extreme cold, periods of high wind and sweltering heat, a tent or make-shift shelter for people with no protection from the elements is not a luxury, it is a lifesaving requirement. The tents that Calgarians are setting up are their homes. A place where people can go to find a little bit of relief, a place to leave a jacket on a hot day or store recycling to take to the depot. These are not just “eyesores” that Calgarians with the privilege of living in traditional housing models have to look at; the tents are homes, and in some ways beacons of hope, that say “Hey, I am still here and I am trying.”

Tearing these structures down in such a barbaric way may seem of no consequence and is often followed by a statement of “it was unsafe, homeless people need to access shelters” but the truth is ripping apart an encampment is nothing more than an act of oppression perpetrated by a system that has already brought the homeless population to its knees. The system doesn’t just want them crawling on their knees, it wants the only way to get out of homelessness to be the way it has decided is best. “You must do what we tell you to do and get the way of life we have decided you must have.” The system has decided that unless you are living in an apartment or a house, paying rent and working a minimum wage job you are wrong and need to be corrected: cue the Peace Officers to show you their way is the only way.

You may be reading this and asking what is wrong with the life they are forcing people into and I am going to tell you, nothing. There is nothing wrong with that life. Lots of us fall into that category and it is our happy place. We are ready to live that life and maybe we have always been ready to live that life, but some people aren’t and some may never be. What has been decided to be the best housing model may not work for everyone and why should it? One model of housing does not fit all. 

Stores don’t sell shoes in only one size of shoes. The shoes that work for you don’t fit me and that's okay. But when it comes to housing, the system says our size is the only size and if you don’t fit we will squeeze you in until you do fit and punish you for complaining about the blisters.

By Sue Gwynn, PovertyTalks! Chair