Homeless people didn’t spray paint church wall

When the Central Baptist Church built a wall to keep people out of a sheltered space alongside the church, the wall was quickly spray painted with the words “Hate Gate? WWJD?” Some Victorians were aghast. Who would do such a thing? Who would build a wall to displace — wait. They were mad about the spray paint?

Image source: Reddit, “bluefluffybunny.”

Image source: Reddit, “bluefluffybunny.”

One Times Colonist letter writer said the spray paint was “what disgruntled individuals do when they feel marginalized, threatened and afraid.” The author said it would be “a very good learning experience” if Reverend Al made the people responsible clean up the graffiti. Another letter writer said that “often-lawless street people” should not be “exempted from responsibility for their actions or condition.” An online commenter said “Point Proven. … By damaging the property, it shows that church did the right thing.”

Without any evidence, some people assumed that homeless people defaced the wall, even using the graffiti to justify the displacement. After I wrote about the wall, I received an anonymous email from the people who actually spray painted it (full text below). They weren’t homeless. They were angry at “yet another place of refuge in Victoria being made inaccessible,” calling it “another example of protecting privilege at the expense of the most vulnerable people in this city.” They were concerned that the street community had been blamed for their actions, and they were apologetic for that fact. “However,” they said, “we remain adamant in our rejection of the wall that Central Baptist Church built and what it represents.”

Check out the online comments on any article about homelessness (warning: always a bad idea) and unfortunately you’ll usually find people saying things like, ‘homelessness is a choice,’ and telling people to take responsibility, pull up their bootstraps, and “Get a job.” I suspect the outrage about the spray paint – that homeless individuals needed to be held to account – was an extension of this belief that if you’re homeless, you must be doing something wrong. Homelessness is not a personal failing: for information on the structural factors that actually contribute to homelessness in Canada, check out these reports. Nevertheless, falsely accusing the street community of spray painting a wall was used as 'evidence' to show homeless people were indeed doing something wrong, and by gum they needed to be held responsible.

The same type of comments appeared when people were talking about Tent City, located on the Victoria court house lawn. “We all need to respect our community if we expect respect in return,” said one letter writer. Sheltering on a lawn was considered unacceptable. After the provincial government destroyed Tent City, they pushed the idea that homeless people had ruined the property with drugs, claiming that meth contamination was a reason the site needed to be cleaned up before it was turned into a playground, even though the trace amounts of drugs weren’t at all a meaningful factor. 

Un-sleepable bench at Tent City playground.

Un-sleepable bench at Tent City playground.

Although the government says it’s fighting the causes of homelessness by building housing, government and community leaders frequently trot out the personal responsibility narrative. As part of a media event this year, the B.C. government had “former tent city campers” work on the playground that replaced Tent City. The government minister responsible for the property, Amrik Virk, said “Today is about giving back and creating a safe public space and playground that the community can enjoy.” Don Evans, executive director of Our Place, said “It truly shows how having access to proper housing, health care and opportunity can transform lives and instill that desire to give back.”

I’m sure some or all of those volunteers were more than happy to work on the playground, but that doesn’t change the fact that Evans and Virk’s version of ‘giving back’ meant building a playground explicitly designed to ensure homeless people can no longer shelter there. Homeless people were expected to ‘make things right’ for the court house lawn and neighbouring residents.

"No use from DUSK to DAWN" for Tent City playground. Closed to campers.

"No use from DUSK to DAWN" for Tent City playground. Closed to campers.

If you’re homeless and people accuse you of spray painting a wall designed to displace you, people will say you need to come and clean it up, even if you didn’t do it. If you camp on a lawn, they’ll say you need to help build the playground designed to keep you away. They’ll tell you it’s your fault someone spoke out against your displacement using graffiti; it’s your fault no better sheltering options existed than a park; it’s your fault that you’re homeless.

Instead of leaping to the defense of a spray painted wall, Victorians could have pointed their fingers in a few other directions. We should be holding governments responsible for choosing wealth for some and poverty for others; holding organizations responsible when they support displacement; and holding members of the public responsible for supporting clean concrete over uncomfortable conversations about homelessness.

Homeless people didn’t spray paint the wall, and the people who did aren't the ones who got us to this point, either.

Full text of email from individuals who spray painted wall:

On December 23rd we ‘vandalized’ Central Baptist Church’s new wall. We were angry when we saw yet another place of refuge in Victoria being made inaccessible to the street-involved people in our community. We thought it particularly telling that Central Baptist would deny shelter to people in need as the church prepared to celebrate Christmas.
As the people responsible for the graffiti we want to be clear about our social location: we are housed, we are not criminalized for our drug use and because of our privilege, we are able to move through this city with relative ease and safety. Through our action on Friday, we inadvertently brought more stress to the street-involved folks who immediately knew they would be blamed for the spray paint. We are sorry for this. However, we remain adamant in our rejection of the wall that Central Baptist Church built and what it represents.
In building their wall, Central Baptist aligns itself with the colonial pro-development and pro-policing mentality that continues to punish those most marginalized by our social systems rather than those that use their power to maintain them. In a city experiencing a housing crisis, an overdose crisis, and a lack of comprehensive health and social services, particularly for those most in need, building the wall is a hypocritical move for an organization that claims to be committed to supporting the street-involved community. To us, the wall is another example of protecting privilege at the expense of the most vulnerable people in this city. 

Stephen Harrison