Protestors demanding better access to housing marched through Port Coquitlam Thursday afternoon and attempted to set up a tent city on a vacant lot next to the 3030 Gordon Ave. homeless shelter.
The demonstration began with a rally in front of the provincial court building on Mary Hill Road before two dozen homeless people and advocates spilled onto the street.
“Homeless people living in the Tri-Cities are really motivated to take some kind of action to make their plight heard,” said Isabel Krupp, an organizer with Alliance Against Displacement. “We are just here supporting the community.”
Carrying signs and banners adorned with slogans such as “Social housing, not police and bylaw harassment” and “We need housing, not cops,” the group marched down Elgin Avenue and blocked traffic at the Shaughnessy Street intersection in downtown PoCo.
When police arrived, they kept moving, connecting with Maple Street before marching down Kingsway Avenue and across the municipal border into Coquitlam.
When the procession arrived at the Gordon Avenue shelter and transitional housing facility, organizers unfurled orange construction fencing and cordoned off an area next to the building. Tents were distributed and people began setting up what they called the “We Exist Tent City.”
“Courts have found in the past that public land owners have an obligation to the public, to the public good more so than a private land owner,” said Ivan Drury, an activist who had a strong hand in the creation the Anita Place tent city in Maple Ridge.
“This lot here is owned by the city of Coquitlam, so we believe that public interest is served by homeless people using that public property… and that police should not act to enforce trespass laws without seeking clarity from a court.”
Coquitlam RCMP disagreed with Drury’s assessment of the situation and ordered protestors to vacate the lot. After a couple hours and multiple meetings between the activists and Mounties, the marchers agreed to disband their camp and move out.
“The organizers of the protest have agreed to depart the area here beside the shelter,” Const. John Graham said at around 4:30 p.m. “We spoke to the organizers and just informed them about the fact that it is trespassing and gave them an opportunity to depart without arrest. They spoke to their people and they decided to go that route.”
Mayor Richard Stewart said in a phone interview that he found the tactics of the protestors and activists “troubling.”
He told The Tri-City News that he did not understand why organizers would target a community that already has a homeless shelter, saying it could deter municipalities from having their own such facilities.
Residents in the community have been generally supportive of the shelter and the cold/wet weather mat program, Stewart said.
“If we ever lose that support, we will have a much bigger problem,” he said, adding that Thursday’s protest “is not doing the cause any good.”
But for people like Tawnya Lee, a homeless person who was a peer support worker with RainCity Housing, which operates the Coquitlam facility, “the shelter is not enough.”
“They have no programs and the turnover rate is lousy,” she said into a microphone at the courthouse rally. “This is a Band-Aid. We need a solution.”
She said there are dorm rooms in the facility that are only used in extreme cold weather that could be made available now. The Tri-Cities should also bring in modular housing, similar to what has been erected in Vancouver's Marpole neighbourhood.
Ross Brydon, who said he has been homeless off and on for 15 years, told The Tri-City News that he has had his camps broken up and his belongings seized by bylaw officers.
“How does it help to take someone’s possessions?” he said. “They will take everything.”
More to come...