Belongings Matter report discusses property rights for unhoused individuals

SFU professor Nicholas Blomney talks stigma and lack of safe shelter

This is a photo of the Powell Street Tent City in Vancouver BC. Multiple tents are set up in a community space, with grass under them. Bikes and other belongings are standing up outside. No people can be seen.
PHOTO: Ted McGrath / Flickr

By: Eden Chipperfield, News Writer

The Government of Canada’s publications regarding property rights state, “Everyone has the right to the use of enjoyment of property individually or in association with others, and the right not to be deprived thereof specified in accordance with law.” However, some local activists have noted that this right is not always protected for the unhoused population. In response, a group of academics and harm-reduction experts came together to author the Belongings Matter report. 

The Belongings Matter report analyzes the current laws and policies surrounding the possessions of unhoused and precariously housed individuals in Canada. Their research has a strong message: “We need to recognize that unhoused people have property rights.”

Whether a blanket from childhood or a shirt from a memorable event, belongings hold importance and can help those who are unhoused and precariously housed survive. However, with the lack of support and the application of personal property rights, these vulnerable individuals are not protected. They can be a victim of stigmatization and dispossession, causing emotional distress. 

To discuss the report as well as strategies surrounding the report, The Peak spoke to SFU geography professor Nicholas Blomney, one of the authors of the Belongings Matter report. 

“The report emerged from a multi-year, multi-site research project into the ways in which precariously housed and unhoused people’s belongings are constantly being taken from them by others, such as bylaw officers, shelter operators, [and] landlords,” said Blomney. The seizure of belongings by shelter officials or rental owners contributes to the stigma that their items are obstructions, dangerous, or garbage. 

The report’s main findings included the lack of safe and secure places for the precariously housed and unhoused populations to store their belongings. They found evidence of routine and frequent seizures and destruction of belongings by officials and private actors, which ultimately increased their vulnerability. 

Those who find shelter in spaces for precariously housed and unhoused individuals are subjected to strict rules about bringing belongings into the space. These rules include limiting the number of possessions to two tote bins. Additionally, some spaces do not allow pets. “Many people told us that shelters were not safe spaces for their belongings as a result. Sometimes people would opt not to use them,” elaborated Blomney.

Many individuals experience challenges when staying in public parks and outdoor spaces such as forced camp clearouts. In September, a camp clearout occurred in Prince George. The raid left residents feeling abandoned and unsafe, expressing that the forcible removal of their belongings is stressful when there is no clarity on where people may end up. Loss of belongings includes tents, which can impact personal safety when impounded. In April, the Vancouver Police Department, with the direction of the City of Vancouver, cleared a large section of tents that was along the street strip, which left unhoused people feeling vulnerable and unsafe. 

The Belongings Matter report discusses how “capitalist liberal societies claim to protect property rights; [yet] they routinely deny rights to poor and unhoused people when it comes to their belongings. Put another way, they protect the interests of those who own land against those forced to use private and state land,” explained Blomney. 

An anonymous interviewee from the “In Their Own Words Section” of the Belongings Matter report recalled how it felt to have their belongings confiscated: “You can’t show somebody who you were once and your history has gone. You’re the only one who remembers.” 

Stigmatization around unhoused or precariously unhoused individuals can cause disinformation. The Peak asked how the Belongings Matter report would address stigmatization. “The report will not dismantle the stigma alone, but it can contribute to a wider recognition of a systemic problem that is based on inequitable, racist, and classist forms of discrimination and devaluation. Perhaps a recognition that we all value our belongings, whatever our social position, is a good place to begin.”

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