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Tent city campers find strength together, fend off contempt and Molotov cocktails

Whirligigs, a statuesque lion and ornamental birds colour the garden and flower boxes beside Sandi Orr’s home — a nylon tent in a vacant lot where she has lived for the past 11 months.

The tent city on that lot in Maple Ridge, B.C., just east of Vancouver, is the only semblance of permanence the 53-year-old has had in years.

It has also provided a sense of safety, despite being a frightening target at times for Molotov cocktails — bottles filled with flammable liquid and stuffed with a burning rag — lobbed over the fence, she said.

“If any one of us was out in the bush, on our own, it could be a lot more serious for sure. There are people who would like us to just disappear.”

A still from an upcoming documentary in which Vancouver’s Pivot Legal Society chronicles life inside the Anita Place encampment in Maple Ridge, B.C.(Pivot Legal Society)

Orr was pushed to the street life after sky-high rents made it unaffordable to have her own place.

The only spaces that are within reach of her income are one-room apartments run by slumlords who don’t look after the buildings, walk into suites without warning and evict tenants without notice, she said.

“I would like to have walls but it’s not easy.”

In the meantime, the 100-person homeless camp, Anita Place, provides a place of community and as much security as Orr can hope to have living under the sky and with her five-year-old dog, Sugar.

“If somebody needs something, we get it for them somehow, or we share what we have. We look after each other,” she said.

“When I found myself on the street I was scared and had nowhere to go. They accepted me here.”

Homeless in Winnipeg

The discussion around tent cities and how the city should approach them has been in the spotlight in Winnipeg after makeshift shelters showed up on the lawn at a West Broadway church last month. The approximately 40 people sleeping on the lawn of All Saints’ Anglican Church were told to move on at the end of May.

A house made of cardboard on the lawn of All Saints’ Anglican Church in Winnipeg’s West Broadway neighbourhood last month.(Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

A downtown homelessness organization in the city said there has been talk about a permanent space for homeless campers because not everyone can find something else.

“It’s a community of people who are facing the same issues and they are coming together,” said Christy Loudon, a co-ordinator with the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ’s Community Homeless Assistance Team.

There are many reasons people find themselves living outside, Loudon said.

Some struggle with substance abuse or other issues that prevent them from living in a shelter, while others can’t find affordable places to live. Some simply prefer to be outside.

Expletives, eggs and bear bangers

Before finding Anita Place, when she was on her own, Orr says she was constantly harassed by city bylaw officers making her move on or clearing out her site while she was away.

“Every last article that you owned. They would take it and you wouldn’t get it back,” she said, calling it a humiliating experience but not surprising.

“Most of the town doesn’t like us, they seem to look down on us,” Orr added, noting how some ​people will drive by the camp and shout expletives, shoot off bear bangers and throw eggs.

“They try to scare us off but they don’t come in here. So we are safer together.”

A person sleeps on the ground at All Saints’ Anglican Church in May.(Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

When you’re camping on your own nobody lets you relax, said another resident named Sabrina, who also goes by Xhlah, but didn’t want her last name used.

If you sit down anywhere with all of your stuff in a trailer or cart, and you look scruffy and messy — which is likely since it’s not easy to be clean — you’re told to move along, she said.

“It’s really hard to find anywhere where anybody’s kind of welcoming to your existence at all.”

Both she and Orr said having Anita Place, a stable and reliable place to sleep and socialize, has taken away a lot of stress.

And the sheer number of people in one place “makes it a little more impossible for them [municipality] to ignore us,” Orr said.

The campers at Anita Place, which was established in May of 2017, have an agreement with the City of Maple Ridge. They are required to obey certain fire rules and refrain from using certain combustible materials, are restricted to having one communal kitchen, and must dispose of their garbage daily.

In exchange, with help from Vancouver-based Pivot Legal Society, which works alongside marginalized communities, the camp has been outfitted by the city with electricity, washrooms, showers and a warming shelter during the colder months.

Not only has that helped address concerns about physical health, it has boosted mental wellness as well, said Orr.

“It helps with your confidence. You don’t feel very good about yourself if you’re dirty,” she said.

“And you need power to charge your phone. How do you get a job if you don’t have a phone that’s charged? People can’t reach you.”

The Anita Place tent city was established in May 2017 and has fought off two court injunctions, leading to an agreement with the city. (Peter Kim)

Sabrina, 40, has heard mumbles and straight-out criticism from people who think the residents are getting handouts by being provided amenities by the city.

“I’d rather not need to have those things but what would we do if we didn’t have the bathrooms, you know what I mean? Where do you want us to go?” she said.

“They have water out for dogs all over the place but they don’t have little stands of water for people. So it’s nice to have those things here but really, I just want to have a place I can afford.”

‘We have no other choice’

There are many people in the camp who have jobs but don’t earn enough to cover rent, said Orr. She has tried in the past to get into supportive housing but having Sugar limited her options.

Potential residents also must apply through companies that manage the housing on behalf of the government, then have a case-management plan put into place. Those programs are aimed primarily at people with addictions and include 24-hour support staff.

Some people, like Orr, simply want a place where they can choose their own roommates — not be assigned a stranger.

“Not all of us are addicts and we don’t need babysitters. We just need our own home,” she said. “We don’t like being out here in the forefront any more than the town likes us out here. But we have no other choice.”

Even with around-the-clock staff at some of the support housing, there have been troubles in the past with illegal tenants and drug dealing. That has prompted such an increase in security that some residents compare the facilities to a jail.

Ideally, all of us would like our own places but until that happens we’ll keep pulling together, looking after each other.– Sandi Orr

That’s not the type of home Orr wants.

Anna Cooper, a Pivot lawyer who has twice defended Anita Place residents from eviction, said many people don’t understand why a homeless person would not give up a dog in order to get a bed somewhere.

But she pointed to studies posted on the Homeless Hub, a web-based research library, that show companionship with pets improves physical and mental health.

Pets also give people a sense of purpose, responsibility, accountability and love in a time of their life where that can be hard to come by, studies show.

“Ideally, all of us would like our own places but until that happens we’ll keep pulling together, looking after each other,” Orr said.

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