By Mike Archer. I think I discovered, last Thursday evening, why the City of Abbotsford, all of its churches, all of its cops and all of its lawyers, is never going to win Bruce Banman’s War on the Homeless. They don’t have Love on their side.
Cover: Nick Zurowski, The Face of Homelessness in Abbotsford. Bas Stevens Photo
When I reported the fact that Calvin Pete had saved a life using a Narcan rescue kit in the TeePee Thursday, I didn’t fully comprehend the significance of what Calvin had done.
He had saved a life.
That’s more than anyone on the Mayor’s Task Force on Homelessness (which was meeting at the other end of town) did Thursday. They didn’t even know the homeless were being evacuated as they met, much less that one of them almost died.
It’s more than any of Abbotsford church leaders or caregivers (Sally Ann excluded) did Thursday. They were all meeting to decide what to do about “those people”
That Calvin was prepared to do what he did, knew how to do it and had the courage and the wisdom to do it is what comes from the Love that exists between the members of the homeless family in Abbotsford. They look out for one another. City councillors don’t do that. Church leaders don’t do that. Business leaders don’t do that.
Nobody in Abbotsford does that like the homeless, the mentally ill, the alcohol dependent and the drug addicted. Nobody takes better care of the homeless than the homeless themselves.
They have to. They know that very few people really give a shit what happens to them in this city.
Now that Mayor Banman has dispersed them so that they can no longer live in the relative security of the numbers they had at the the camps across from the Sally Ann, they will be hard pressed to take care of one another. The loneliness and fear of the cops which comes when you’re living all alone in the woods in Abbotsford, is a paralyzing fear. People who OD alone in the woods don’t have the benefit of being able to rely on Calvin to save their lives.
It’s why, in communities like Abbotsford, which for so many years insisted on denying them health care, which continues battling with them in the courts and sicking the cops on them to enforce Anti-Homeless Bylaws and No Trespassing notices, addicts tend to die when they OD in Abbotsford. Denied life-saving help and forced to live as far away from it as possible … they simply die.
Banman has improved on his chicken manure record by carefully evacuating them behind barbed wire and No Trespassing signs. But the result is the same – these people are once again on their own, dispersed and easy prey for the Abbotsford Police Department (APD).
But they will survive.
They have survived through more than a decade of the abuse, hatred, theft, damage, assault, pepper spray, chicken feces, rubber bullets and bylaw after bylaw trying to eradicate them. This is what their city thinks of them.
But they love one another, take care of one another and they will endure … no matter what Banman wants to throw at them.
The Face of Abbotsford Homelessness
Nick Zurkowski was conceived and born on the Sumas Prairie and raised on a small piece of property at the corner of Cyril Street and Gladys Avenue directly across Cyril from the Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) massive new building along Gladys Avenue.
Raised by his mother, he remembers walking the area along the railway tracks known as ‘The Tramps‘ and growing up in old downtown Abbotsford surrounded by the old Hacker Press building, the general store on the corner of Gladys and Essendene, the old City Hall, the brothel and the many other businesses which made up the old downtown area on the east side of the tracks.
Nick had a newspaper route and delivered the first paper on his route to old Mr. Hacker’s house on the hill overlooking the current downtown area. The house he grew up in is now an empty municipal lot at the corner of Cyril St and Gladys Avenue across from the Mennonnite Central Committee’s new building. As Nick remembers it, it was a simple life but a tough life as the City gradually kept increasing taxes to the point where his mother could no longer afford them and she lost the home.
Life takes it twists and turns and Nick ended up doing hard time in Winnipeg. The same cops who put Thomas Sophonow away were involved in Nick’s case and he spent his entire 15-year sentence behind bars.
A City With Few Opportunities
When he came home, there weren’t many opportunities for him in his home town. The City has always suffered from high unemployment and the only jobs available have always tended to be minimum wage, service industry or warehouse jobs.
Programs like the Multi-Family Housing initiative provide cheap living space for poor people, but tenants must be vetted by the APD so, even though he had done his time and paid his debt to society, he was not allowed to have a home.
Abbotsford is very unforgiving on those it doesn’t feel belong. Rather than governing the city from a point of view where one starts by factoring who lives here and then deciding what they need, Abbotsford’s power structure seems to have adopted the notion that the ruling class is supposed to decide who it wants to live here and make life as miserable as possible for the others who make the mistake of believing they belong.
The Indo-Canadian community appears to have got past the gate by accumulating wealth which, even by Abbotsford’s standards, entitles you to a measure of respect or, at the very least, tolerance.
Working a variety of part-time and full time jobs as a boat builder Nick managed to survive and get by but, after 15 years in a cell, he began to realize that living inside was difficult for him.
One morning he woke up in Jubilee Park. “I smelled the dew on the grass”; the fresh smell of morning in the outdoors,” and he was hooked.
“Not everyone can live inside,” he explains. With the police making it impossible for him to live indoors and a deck which seemed relentlessly stacked against him, Nick survived on his own and began to learn the ins an outs of living on the streets of Abbotsford.
Nursing a drug habit which he worked hard to keep under control, living on the street and working whenever he could, Nick became one of the citizens which Councillor John Smith and Abbotsford Downtown Business Association (ADBA) president Bob Bos were targeting when they told Pastor Christoph Reiners to stop feeding the poor and Smith instructed APD Chief Bob Rich to get a handle on the homeless problem downtown.
A Different Kind Of Community
While Nick was born and raised in Abbotsford and has spent most of his life living here, he has never quite grown used to the fact that people from his home town who don’t even know him are so determined to have him leave.
“It’s like they honestly believe you have no right to be here,” he says of those like Mayor Banman, Councillor John Smith, developer Bob Bos and police Chief Bob Rich who relentlessly pursue the homeless with a view to eliminating them from the city. The city in which he was born and grew up.
Nick describes the people he has known among the homeless men and women who have, like him, been forced to live on the streets in Abbotsford. Some are dead. From Penny to Victor he remembers them all. Though they’ve lived a rough life they look out for one another and take care of each other.
“I’ve lost a lot of good friends to heroin and just the life on the streets. It kills people you know. They’re relentless,” he says of the City and its police force which have devoted a great deal of resources to displacing, dispersing and evicting homeless men and women from the city and making life as miserable as possible for those who either can’t find a job, can’t live inside or suffer from mental illness, alcohol or drug addiction.
“They’ve made it very clear they don’t want us around,” he adds.
Nick describes the manner in which Abbotsford’s people of the street take care of one another. Word gets around extremely quickly when someone is in trouble, when bad drugs hit the street, or when someone goes missing, no different from what a family does to survive.
The speed with which a message gets around through connections at the 5 and 2 Ministries meals, the crowd at the Sally Ann or the Food Bank or just among connections on the street, would amaze most people who haven’t experienced it says Nick.
“We look out for one another. Calvin saved a life Thursday. I don’t know how easy that is going to be now that they spread everybody back out into the woods,” he says.
A City Without A Heart?
Nick doesn’t feel sorry for himself. He’s certainly had a rough enough life to be entitled to, but he’s a lot more philosophical about things. Nick is a full status member of the Nlaka’pamux Native Band and takes a lot of his inspiration from his native roots.
Its one of the reasons he believes the homeless DWS protest camp of the Drug War Survivors has lasted so long.
Of all the protest camps in BC, from the Shantytown Protest in Vancouver in 1971, which lasted almost a year, to the Olympic Protests and the current protest in Oppenheimer Park, few have had as much strength or impact as the protest by the Abbotsford Chapter of the BC/Yukon Drug War Survivors.
That protest began in Jubilee Park on August 31 of 2013 as a temporary protest to mark International Overdose Day.
The Native Connection
On October 20, 2013, the DWS began their current protest which has lasted more than nine months. After being evicted from Jubilee Park on Christmas Eve after erecting a mammoth wooden structure to protect themselves against the elements, the DWS protest moved down to City property on Gladys Avenue opposite the MCC.
Calling itself the ‘MCC Dignity Village’ the camp, which has centered around the traditional native TeePee, has lasted, undisturbed, since the protesters moved there upon being evicted from Jubilee Park on Christmas Eve.While the homeless were evacuated from all of the camps along Gladys Avenue and chased into the woods on July 31, those living at and around the TeePee were left undisturbed.
Most likely the fact that both the City and the DWS are awaiting a ruling from the BC Supreme Court on the DWS’ law suits against the City (expected soon) is the main reason the City has not evacuated the DWS camp. An eviction notice has been up on the TeePee since early January.
But some of the reasons for the longevity, many believe, has to do with the native connections which started with the TeePee. A number of TeePees have been raised at the Oppenheimer Park protest and connections are beginning to be made with native peoples and their aboriginal rights. After all, the land white people occupied in BC was all originally native territory and the province has the fewest negotiated treaties of any province in Canada.
While that was used against First Nations peoples for decades, the recent Supreme Court decision on aboriginal title rights has had an enormous impact on First Nations people throughout the country.
Many of those who are homeless, drug addicted, alcohol dependent and suffering from mental illness on Abbotsford streets are First Nations people whose connections with the city, and more importantly the land on which it was built, go back thousands of years.
But when one looks at all of the protests over the years over homelessness and the rights of the marginalized in BC, most have lasted weeks or a few months at most. What, I asked Nick, is the reason the DWS protest has lasted so long? Why do those who are battling the City and the APD have so much strength and belief in what they are doing?
Why, in essence, does he believe they are eventually going to win their battle for the right for basic human dignity and respect which the City and its police force seem so determined to deny them?
Nick thought a long moment before saying, “Love.”
“You know a lot of tough guys think the word ‘Love’ is a sign of weakness,” he says. “It’s the strongest word in the world.”
“My native elders have taught me about the Creator. My white ancestors talk about God. In the good book it says that God created the heavens and the earth. I think that makes them one and the same. That’s who I listen too and it is his word I try to speak. His word is Love,” says Nick.
“I’ve met a lot of people in Abbotsford who know how to love. Most people do. But institutions can’t love. Cities can’t love. Law firms can’t love, Police departments can’t love. They can only do what they are told; do what the people who control them tell them to do,” he says.
That’s why the City of Abbotsford and all of its Anti Harm Reduction Bylaws, Anti Homeless Bylaws, APD ‘Displace and Disperse’ policies, rich business people and powerful churches and caregivers who stand by letting the War on the Homeless be fought in their name can never win this War.
There is more love in the 50 metres around the TeePee and spread from it throughout the homeless community now dispersed again throughout the City, and those who love them, than in the entire power structure of Abbotsford.
And that is some pretty powerful Wampum.
*Addendum: After posting all of the coverage of the evacuation of the homeless camps on Thursday and looking through the many comments asking why this was being done; why the City would find this such a convenient time to move all those homeless people away from their only source of food – the Sally Ann; why they would get BC Hydro to do their dirty work; who benefits from moving all of those homeless people away from the Sally Ann … I was informed that the Salvation Army is going to institute a cap on the number of meals they serve every day.
Turns out John Smith’s and Bob Rich’s and Bob Bos’ policy of relentlessly starving, abusing, assaulting, and terrorizing homeless people hasn’t worked. We’ve got more than we can handle; nowhere to put them and the Sally Ann, with all its government money, can’t afford to feed them all, much less house them. So they had to be moved away where they could … what … starve?
Having known about and approved of the use of chicken feces to get rid of the homeless across the street a year ago, it was nice of the Sally Ann to provide storage for some of their stuff when they were chased away this year through an obstacle course of No Trespassing signs, barbed wire fences and gravel piles funneling them away from their only source of food, showers and toilets.
One has to wonder why, if the Sally Ann is so good at housing the homeless, it is completely overwhelmed with the human rights crisis it has helped to create, nurture and support.
Short Summary of Abbotsford’s Homeless Crisis:
First came John Smith’s announcement to the national media that he had instructed the APD to handle homelessness in downtown Abbotsford; then the Abbotsford Shuffle – otherwise known as Chief Bob Rich’s “disperse and displace” strategy for solving homelessness; then Mayor Banman’s Chicken Manure Incident (first revealed on Abbotsford Today); then there was the Standoff in Jubilee; followed by the ‘MCC Dignity Village‘ protest camp on Gladys Avenue and the gathering of more and more of Abbotsford’s homeless to the security of living with others and out in the open in the growing size and number of camps across from the Salvation Army and along Gladys Avenue.
Along the way a few embarrassing revelations were uncovered and published by Abbotsford Today including
the fact that the Salvation Army knew about and was in agreement with the use of chicken feces to encourage the homeless to move from their camp across the street from the Sally Ann; and the rude and demeaning emails shared by police chief Bob Rich and his senior staff after the Chicken Manure Incident went worldwide.