When your city hates poor and homeless people

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On this week's episode of Talking Radical Radio, Scott Neigh speaks with Stephen Harrison and Ashley Mollison of Victoria, British Columbia. Harrison has been documenting the increasing use of physical measures meant to displace poor and homeless people and Mollison is a community organizer in struggles against displacement.

For those of us who aren't among the targets, it can be difficult to see the extent to which many cities are actively hostile to the presence of certain groups of people. This hostility is often produced by a mix of the physical construction of spaces, policies and practices regulating how space gets used, policing that actively targets poor and racialized people, and at times middle-class political mobilization that invokes buzzwords like "safe" and "clean" and "renewal" to target people who are poor, Indigenous, Black, homeless, or otherwise marginalized. And not only can it be hard for the rest of us to perceive, it can also be hard to fully appreciate how incredibly deliberate this targeting often is -- especially when there is money to be made by taking an area that was once at least somewhat welcoming to poor and homeless people and completely re-making it in order to make money.

Stephen Harrison is, among other things, a writer and researcher, and recently he has been publishing a blog called Needs More Spikes to document the city's increasing use of what's called "defensive architecture" -- that is, elements of built form that are meant to displace, discipline, and regulate poor and homeless people in their use of urban space. Mollison is an organizer with the Alliance Against Displacement -- a group based in Victoria, Vancouver, and the lower mainland of B.C, that organizes with Indigenous and working-class people, particularly people who are poor and homeless. (For a more thorough exploration of the work of Alliance Against Displacement in the mainland context, check out this episode of Talking Radical Radio from December 2016.)

According to today's guests, in the last decade Victoria has become much, much more hostile towards poor and homeless people. There is a housing crisis. Rents are skyrocketing. The shelter system is inadequate. There are bylaws that limit where and when people who have no other place to go can take refuge in public spaces. Police actively target poor and homeless people. A 10-month-long tent city in 2015 and 2016 faced vocal and organized opposition from middle-class residents, and while it ultimately won both legal and political victories that resulted in 147 new units of social housing (in a province that no longer builds social housing), this was implemented by the government in a form that is highly regulated and surveilled and that feels for many residents less like home and more like living in an oppressive institution. And, throughout the city, in many different forms, there is increasing use of defensive architecture -- in large part because policies by the city and the police have aggressively pushed for the inclusion of defenisve architecture.

Harrison and Mollison talk with me about defensive architecture, about the increasingly aggressive displacement faced by poor and homeless people in downtown Victoria, and about some of what is being done to push back against both of those things.

To learn more, check out Needs More Spikes and the Alliance Against Displacement.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada. We give you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow us on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

The photo modified for use in this post was taken by Scott Neigh and is used with permission.

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