The Beautification Crew Strikes Again

I was at a cafe last week when I read about City council voting to displace people gathering across the street from the Rock Bay Landing shelter. The cafe workers were playing “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” The song is about heartbreak, and listening to it I thought it could be a soundtrack for people living in visible poverty in colonial Victoria.

There may be no better entry point to describing what people in visible poverty face here than the ‘beautification’ of Pandora Green that was completed in 2011.[1] The project underscores explicit contradictions between what authorities in Victoria say and what they do. Mayor Fortin evicted tenters while simultaneously promising to end homelessness; the Ministry of Health expressed its compassion for the ‘hardest-to-reach’ and then legitimized their eviction; the business owners of Pandora Green came together under the auspice of the Good Neighbour Agreement (GNA), and then proceeded to increase police surveillance on the people who access services at Our Place.

The same thing is happening at Rock Bay Landing (RBL). On November 28th, City council voted 9-0 to approve construction of a “community garden” on the 500-block of Ellice Street that will displace people from being able to sit in the sun on the embankment outside RBL. The project was conceived through the Good Neighbour Agreement negotiated with RBL in 2010.

The Rock Bay Landing GNA members consist of a City council liaison, Charlayne Thornton-Joe, a representative from the Victoria Police Department, managers from Cool Aid who run RBL, and property owners in the area, like Chew Excavating. As with the Pandora Green GNA, people who access the services at Rock Bay are conspicuously absent from making decisions that will affect them even though a principle of the GNA is to “be respectful of the street community.”[2]

Similar to Pandora Green, the authorities do not seem interested in understanding why people have to sit around in an industrial park in the first place. The answer would be embarrassing for them. City council facilitated the opening of RBL as a replacement for the StreetLink shelter. Under the new paradigm for managing poverty, the shelter is far away from the tourist eye, and condemns people who need services there to walk 20 minutes from downtown, where the majority of survival resources and services can be accessed.

Combining the proliferation of red circle signs provided through the Downtown Victoria Business Association, red zones issued through the criminal (in)justice system, bylaws to prevent placing personal possessions on the ground, and the Capital Regional District bylaw that makes binning illegal, the city makes its implicit point explicit. It is no exaggeration to regard the whole of downtown as a Fortress Victoria that is increasingly built up to exclusively meet the needs of privileged people.

The second factor that explains why people have to sit on a patch of grass in an industrial park lies in the increasing number of people who are being banned from accessing social services, or who cannot or do not want to access services that have police on site because they may be caught in the cycle of criminalized poverty. Thornton-Joe refers to this issue when she says “[m]any of the people who camp there are people who don’t even use Cool Aid or are banned from Cool Aid.”[3]

The people she is referring to, who are trying to get by on almost nothing, are under intense survival stress. Most people that are visibly poor have disabilities (but often cannot get Person With a Disability assistance), challenges with their mental health, and addictions that often originate with the traumas that brought them into poverty in the first place, and which are certainly exacerbated by poverty. In that regard, concentrating people into tight quarters at RBL, and placing them under police surveillance, is not a respite from the everyday struggle to survive.

Meanwhile, the workers at Rock Bay Landing are placed in the very difficult position of having to respond with care, compassion and skill in a context of scarcity. After thirty years of neoliberalism, the withdrawal of resources from front-line care work has taken a heavy toll. This plays out on the ground in the form of inadequate training for workers to do work that can be very complex, inadequate resources to allow workers to debrief and seek additional support around difficult dynamics, and inadequate self-care support for workers themselves. This produces an environment where worker turnover is high, in turn thinning out worker capacity to build longer-term relationships and trust with the people who access the services, and leads to workers resorting to measures of last resort – like banning – more often.

The additional problem arises when the very people who have benefited the most during this neoliberal period, like the Victoria Police Department and property and business owners, turn around and blame the victims, and then devise policy solutions that produce a third displacement – this time from an embankment chosen in desperation.

But blaming victims and displacing them appears to be the only policy GNAs and the City can pursue. Thornton-Joe articulates the philosophy behind this when she explains: “I have to be able to stand up and say: homeless shelters, supportive housing, food bank areas have to be able to be in every neighbourhood in every municipality. But to be able to say that, I also have be able to say it will not be a negative impact to your neighbourhood.”[4]

She means that people who are poor will only ever be welcome in a ‘neighbourhood’ when they can behave like people who are not poor. Since that possibility has been closed off through the act of privileged people consolidating power for themselves, the City of Victoria will operate its exclusion everywhere and all the time. First people will get displaced to accessing services in an industrial park. Then they will be barred from getting those services because they cannot be adequately provided. And finally they will get blamed one more time and be kicked off the patches of grass that always seem to ground the last stand of people in visible poverty.

Of course, none of this is new. The language of ‘beautification’ and ‘community gardens’ used to describe displacement ties into the overarching contradictions of Victoria. We live in a city committed to a colonial, socially cleansing, and environmentally disastrous aesthetic at all costs: City council talks gardens to stimulate an ecologically destructive tourist industry; it whitens its image to glorify its genocidal colonial past; and, in the case of Pandora Green and Rock Bay Landing, it beautifies to marginalize people living poverty.

So yes, every rose has its thorns, and the authorities in Victoria like it that way.