Solidarity with St. John’s Tent City grows as winter approaches

By Sam Crete  

In the past few months, a local protest, has emerged in St. John’s to advocate for long-term, accessible housing for all. Located right between the Colonial Building and Bannerman Park, Tent City for Change (TC4C) is the second tent city that St. John’s has seen this year due to the housing crisis that is felt by millions of Canadians across the country.

As winter approaches, Tent City resident protestors face continuing hardships and mounting challenges, while both provincial and municipal governments fail to provide adequate resources. Through collaboration with the unhoused resident protestors, local non-resident protestors and neighbours of TC4C, a mutual aid community has been fostered to cope with treacherous conditions and to ensure people remain fed and warm.

This collaboration is what has made TC4C more livable, safer and warmer this fall, but it does not resolve the prevailing issue, which is a need for long-term, accessible housing. Unhoused people in St. John’s and across the province need to be housed, but our capitalist economy necessitates poverty and homelessness, thus creating obstacles and barriers to finding humane, wrap-around solutions at every level of government.

Tent City for Change began at Bannerman Park after a previous tent city at the Confederation Building deteriorated. Right-wing organizers had been active in the previous tent city, co-opting the movement for housing advocacy yet doing little to adequately support the residents there. In response, a number of residents and volunteers moved to Bannerman Park to gain autonomy, be closer to services and more effectively facilitate harm reduction services to meet the needs of the community outside of the grip of right-wing interests.

TC4C offers a number of spaces and resources for resident protestors. These include an outdoor heating furnace, a large heating tent for residents to warm themselves and to socialize, and a supply tent with clothing, blankets and other resources for anyone to use. Meals are provided regularly by volunteers and community members, and a car port has been added so that be sheltered from the elements.

Resident protestor Gregory said people feel supported as they continue to protest for housing. “Somebody will cook, somebody will help take care of people, somebody will help with garbage. If you need something, each and every one of us is there – there is no ‘no’ here when you need support.”

Despite these efforts and community support, it has not been easy to maintain the services that are available. Public bathrooms are nearby but have until recently been closed between 8:00 PM and 8:00 AM. TC4C volunteer and activist Mark Wilson shared, “for a month we have been advocating for 24-hour bathroom access to the municipal government – the result of that work was that they removed all bathroom access.”

Luckily, the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public Employees (NAPE) and a group of anonymous community donors stepped up and provided two porta potties, fulfilling an important community need that both the provincial and municipal government failed to do in a timely manner. (Within hours of this development, St. John’s Mayor Danny Breen announced that the bathrooms would be reopened 24/7, a major win stemming directly from the activism and advocacy of the TC4C protestors.)

In the face of extensive challenges, a strong sense of community still triumphs at Tent City for Change. “Anybody who needs support or feels that they’re alone, they got a spot here that’s safe. It might be crazy and hectic, but nobody’s stuff gets stolen, we support anyone who needs it,” said Gregory, adding that during a recent snowstorm, “about ten of us were huddled in the heating tent, that creates a strong bond.”

But make no mistake, although this community action is commendable, people still need to be housed and fear still exists amongst the residents. “I’m worried I’ll freeze to death here,” said one resident protestor. “We need to be housed by the time winter is really here.”

Being unhoused is the result of policy decisions made by those in power. The terrifying reality tent city residents must confront is a direct result of the current economic structure.

Capitalism creates, perpetuates and criminalizes homelessness. For the past 25 years, the housing market in Canada has been reliably profitable, with property companies, investors and landlords purchasing and building homes to make a return on their investment. New houses are always being built, but their purpose is not to meet the collective housing needs of the working class – instead, they are exclusively made to ensure profits for those wealthy enough to invest in housing.

With high property values comes higher rent costs and this, coupled with record inflation rates, means it is often too expensive to be housed, unless you are getting paid well above minimum wage. Many working-class people in St. John’s can only go through NL Housing, a pseudo-governmental body responsible for providing social housing, to find a place to live. However, these services are already over capacity and underfunded, making neglected emergency shelters the only option for many.

TC4C resident protestors say that these emergency shelters “aren’t really safe – you can get robbed in them, beaten in them, the food isn’t good. Lots of tension.” For many people, Tent City for Change is the only safe option.

The housing needs of the working class cannot be met with a profit-driven economy. Capitalism perpetuates homelessness in order to create what Marx referred to as “the reserve army of labour.” Maintaining a portion of the working class in unemployment and poverty means there will consistently be a workforce willing to work for the cheapest rates available. With high housing costs and staggering inflation rates, the threat of being fired comes with a great risk of ending up unhoused, and this looming threat makes many workers hesitant about organizing.

Governments continually betray their loyalty to capitalist interests by allowing market forces to leave workers unhoused, and even by actively making it more challenging to be unhoused. The efforts of working people, unions and local co-ops have made Tent City a place where unhoused people feel safe and supported, but we clearly need to subvert capitalism if we are to fully guarantee working people’s needs.

[Photo: Tent City residents celebrate donated portable toilet, nicknamed “Danny Latrine” after St. John’s mayor.]

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