Empty for the wrong reasons: A visual archive of Kingston’s COVID-19 encampment evictions

The following is a submitted Op/Ed photo essay. The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of The Kingstonist.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated governmental failures to provide housing for all across Canada. Mounting rent burdens, the lifting of provincial eviction moratoriums, and the rollback of federal income support programs continue to place many at risk of homelessness. For unhoused tenants, the added risk of viral transmission in confined spaces has created an additional barrier to a shelter system that is already stretched beyond its intended capacity and inaccessible to some for a variety of complex and often personal reasons.

In August, Ontario’s Landlord Tenant Board resumed expedited eviction hearings throughout the province, which promises to significantly worsen the housing crisis, as several regions begin to move towards increasingly restrictive public health measures in response to spiking case counts. Encampments have sprung up in cities across Canada, most notably in Vancouver, Victoria, and Toronto as a result of these conditions, with each providing an opportunity to adequately socially distance and connect with peer networks to create a safer environment relative to other forms of rough sleeping.  Encampments, or “tent cities,” also provide a type of service hub, allowing residents to consistently access a low-barrier collection of support services including help finding housing, harm reduction, nutritional food, and cultural safety. In Kingston and across the country, encampment residents and public health practitioners have attested to the importance of defending unhoused tenants’ right to stay in place. Unfortunately, and contrary to the advice of said authorities, several encampments have been destroyed in Kingston Ontario throughout the COVID-19 pandemic in the absence of immediate and concrete action to increase the local availability of community housing. This photo essay revisits the sites of these former encampments to capture their emptiness, a state that did not come to be through the universal provision of adequate housing. Instead, these landscapes were shaped by the forced movement of unhoused tenants, a fact that is worth recording for posterity. Through these photographs, I attempt to archive the interconnectedness of these places, their significance to our collective memory of the COVID-19 pandemic, and our responsibilities to one another in this time of global public health crisis.

Despite the existence of this record of Kingston’s encampment evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, photographs depicting the next chapter of this harmful cycle of eviction, dispossession and precarious resettlement have not yet been taken. This fact alone is grounds for hope and collective reflection on a future of bold, equitable, and participatory policy responses to housing that is not foreclosed upon. Of course, access to adequate and supportive housing is a preferable alternative to encampments. However, in the absence of said housing and in the context of a global pandemic of viral respiratory illness, the destruction of encampments places the health and well-being of their residents at risk.

In a just society, where vital resources, including housing, are decommodified and equitably distributed to ensure a basic standard of health and well-being for all — these particular photographs would never come to be. Instead, these images might convey an emptiness for a different reason: A collective decision to house our neighbours.

Aaron Bailey is a graduate student in Health Promotion and member of the Centre for Environmental Health Equity at Queen’s University. His work focuses on the relationship between history, activism, harm reduction, and housing in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. He is also a member of Mutual Aid Katarokwi-Kingston’s Tenant Solidarity Network.

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