Greetings, Portland and Seattle and Osaka and Toronto, Sacramento and San Francisco and Santa Cruz and can't forget Santa Babylon, all poor people in Huntingdon and New Hampshire and Hamilton, Ontario, too, greetings to ev'ry ev'ryone of you and you. This is Tafari come in from the cold, brought back into the fold and writing once again for street roots, one of North America's up-and-coming street newspapers. And this week's guest inna disya brand new column name Tent City News & World Report is the one Boni fram Tent City Toronto. But before Boni who is a friend and strong supporter of Dignity Village come in, here is a likkle background infamashan:
Here at Dignity Village inna town name Portland, Oregon, we became aware of some other people in Toronto, Ontario, who were doing much the same thing there as we were here. They were poor people fed up with the lack of what they call social housing -- we call it "affordable housing" -- and for one reason or another couldn't or wouldn't go into the crowded and dirty missions. What they did was set up some tents on a piece of fallow ground owned by a multi-national corporation popularly called Homeless Depot in these times in Toronto.
We became aware of Toronto's Tent City (TCTO) as the weather started to turn cold in Portland in the Autumn of '01 mainly through what we'd seen in the New York Times and other newspapers. The papers at that time were full of pictures of refugees in Afghanistan with snow on their tents and out here at Sunderland Yard at this town's leaf composting facility where we'd more or less just been swept like leaves, the wind can be ferocious in Winter as it whips down through the Columbia Gorge. We were struggling with winterization and keeping warm at the same time the people in Afghanistan and Toronto were who we saw in the papers.
Now many of us out here at Dignity Village don't put a lot of stock in what we read in the papers. We've learned a lot about yellow journalism and the kept press and spin doctoring and mean-spirited editorials and see how the papers that focus on personalities set individuals up and then tear them down and the village with them. We had computers by then at Dignity Village and through a friend at the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee who was helping our brother and sister tentcityites winterize, we got in touch with a woman at TCTO named Boni.
Boni runs the Hamilton Coalition Against Poverty & Squatters Rights Web site, but back in '01 she'd spent nine months living in TCTO including "one Canadian Winter," she says, "with snow up to my frou frou." Boni's been an activist for social justice including Native Rights, Adoption Rights, Assaulted Women's Rights, Harm Reduction and Squatter's Rights for more than 20 years. Boni says that unless we're housed, we're all squatters regardless of condition.
TCTO was swept in September and as Boni was there, I asked her about that. What, I asked, became of TCTO? Boni replied, "Tent City Toronto residents were violently evicted by a huge force of Toronto police and a private security force provided by Home Depot with no prior notice to evict. This was in direct violation of Canada's agreement with the United Nations. The international backlash of support for the residents resulted in a subsidy offer from the Ontario government that allowed the residents to then be securely housed in privately owned abodes at a rate that is 25 percent to 75 percent cheaper than housing them in shelters."
What became of the land the people lived on, I wondered. Boni says that site, as far as they are able to discern, will be turned into a parking lot for a waterfront entertainment center. "All of the wildlife has been driven out," she says, " and every tree and blade of grass plowed into pavement. There are huge barbed-wire fences around the site and 24-hour security to ensure no one squats there again." And the people? Well, we know that 106 people of the community that was Toronto's Tent City now live scattered all over that big city but are coming together again in a celebration of their newly won housing.
"What it really comes down to," Boni says, "is an old-fashioned peasant land fight. The powers-that-be have unused land and money, and those who live in poverty have need of those resources to survive. It's survival vs. greed."
Finally, I asked Boni if any of the three reasons usually used to justify shutting a tent city down, that they're unsightly, unsafe or unsanitary, came into play in TCTO's demise. "Frankly," Boni says, "those are all red herrings used to shut tent cities down."
"What shuts them down is the popularity factor. The more popular and visible any squat is, the more likely the popular attention will draw in a negative response from institutional systems. Large squats prove there is a housing crisis and also show that people who are self-motivated do not need nor want social-service agencies that treat them as recalcitrant children one step up from a prison environment. What squatters want is an independent living arrangement which, due to corporate greed, they can't afford."
"There is no 'drug-free' zone in any major city. Again, it's a double standard. You can do drugs and alcohol in Hollywood and it makes you an 'in' guy/gal but if you do it somewhere that doesn't have a lawn the size of a football field, suddenly that's the scapegoat reason you live in poverty. Unhoused people are just obvious in their choices because they don't have a home to hide in."
"There are huge unsightly messes in differing parts of any major city and no one really cares what sanitation facilities exist or not when a squat is quiet and unobtrusive. All these 'issues' are only 'issues' when squatters become obvious."
"The government doesn't give a damn about evicting the one lonely guy who sleeps in a dumpster. He isn't a threat to the system and they don't care if he drinks publicly, uses drugs or urinates on the pavement outside his elected abode. And they don't care about his personal safety, either."
"I have news for everyone," Boni concludes. "Tent City Toronto wasn't a one-shot deal. With the critical housing shortage in this city, there are and were hundreds of unobtrusive squats all over. And history denied is bound to repeat itself."