Forced to become a community

by Nic Olson

See below for a summary of an article that I wrote with Bernie Pauly, entitled: ‘Forced to Become a Community’: Encampment Residents’ Perspectives on Systemic Failures, Precarity, and Constrained Choice.

A black and white photo of a tent in a city park with a tarp over it that reads with spraypaint: "Fuck you bylaw scum".
(Note: this photo was not taken from the Super Intent City encampment written about in the article. But I agree with its sentiments).

Homelessness is a serious public health concern with devastating consequences for health and wellbeing of homeless people. Visible signs of homelessness often appear in the form of encampments or tent cities. Such sites often raise controversies about public health and safety without attention to the structural, systemic and individual factors that contribute to their existence, including deficits in basic determinants of health and a failure to protect human rights to housing. The purpose of this paper is to explore the conditions that contribute to homeless encampments and ongoing issues of precarity, and right to housing from the perspective of residents of one encampment. The data set was comprised of 47 affidavits taken from 33 people from one tent city in Victoria, British Columbia (BC) in anticipation of legal action to remove residents and their belongings in 2016. We used Braun and Clarke’s (2006) approach to thematic analysis to identify, analyze and report patterns within the data. Residents spoke to systemic failures within the homeless sector itself as a factor in decisions to live in an encampment. Participants highlighted the challenges of ‘being chained to a backpack’ with nowhere to go and the impact of bylaws and policing on their health and well being. They acknowledged that while living in an encampment is a last resort it is often a better option than the streets or shelters with the benefits of a community, albeit a forced one with ongoing precarity. Public health responses to encampments should focus on centring human rights to adequate housing including self-determination and access to determinants of health. Such responses are aligned with public health commitments to health equity and social justice and require public health infrastructure.

See the full article available at the International Journal of Homelessness.