Possessions
of Precariously
Housed People

In Their Own Words

Introduction

In planning, interviews, and analysis, the Possessions of Precariously Housed People project has always centered the knowledges and perspectives of our precariously housed research partners. In Abbotsford, we have partnered with the Drug War Survivors (DWS), a peer based group of precariously housed people, many of whom use drugs. In 2021, Nicholas Blomley and MA Candidate Claire Shapton collaboratively drafted a presentation with DWS on the importance of possessions for precariously housed individuals. This presentation drew on a series of interviews and focus groups with peers. They wished to have their names and voices included in the presentation. They reflected on their personal experiences in securing and controlling their personal possessions, whether living outside, in shelters or supportive housing, or in private rental housing. Others, whether private or public agents, constantly steal, destroy, misplace, or seize their stuff. This page in an adaptation of that presentation.

The Hum

We frame the loss of possessions as a hum, recognizing the ongoing nature of these events.

When asked to share stories in relation to their stuff and the challenges they face in securing it, people found it hard to offer just one account. There are just too many stories, they insist. People’s stuff is constantly being taken from them by multiple actors – landlords, shelter managers, police and security, Bylaw officers, and other precariously housed people.

There's this constant whine, like this hum in this lifestyle. And it’s the same story, over and over again by different people, but it’s the same: “Oh, my God, they took my stuff! Oh, my God, they stole my stuff! That fucking goof stole my stuff! Can you believe it? They took my stuff!”

— Connie Long

Belongings, Possessions, Stuff

People’s stuff takes many forms – it includes tarps, tents, clothing and other essentials for survival. Losing this stuff, or being forced to move all the time, is problematic.

Interviewee: We are sitting in a tent that doesn’t even zip up right now… it probably would still be working if we didn’t have to move four or five times a day.

— Anonymous Interviewee

The Importance of Possessions

But shelter is not the only purpose that possessions serve. ‘Stuff’ is also tied to memory, identity, and belonging. It may just be ‘stuff’, but losing some objects can be emotionally devastating.

I know it’s only stuff… but as the years go by, it’s stuff I could never, ever get back.

— Anonymous Interviewee

Losing photos or keepsakes means losing connections to family, memories, past histories.

The one thing that really, really, really hurts is losing my son’s keepsake box. So all the baby mementos, like his bracelet, my bracelet from when we were in the hospital when I had him. And his… like all the cards that I got from, you know, being in the hospital and all of that stuff and his first birthday and all the cards from that. You know, just those little things that you’ll never be able to get back

— Andrea Webber

You can’t show somebody who you were once and your history has gone. You’re the only one who remembers.

— Anonymous Interviewee

When they [your kids] can see the pictures… and see the things that I have from back then. Maybe it helps them realize, you know, where mom comes from. Why mom’s going through some of the things she goes through.

— Connie Long

Loss and Risk

Losing possessions puts people at risk, furthering their precarity.

I mean, I have to deal with the elements, you know. When it rains and stuff, a lot of these guys don’t have proper tarps and stuff like that so they get soaked. And then, you know, they’re standing there frozen, cause you know, they’re soaked to the bone, and they have no way to dry their stuff off. No place to go get warm. It’s crazy, man. And how can we do that to our own brothers and sisters?

— Anonymous Interviewee

Once you lose your numbers, we’re not like kids anymore where we used to remember our friends' numbers offhand, right? Or your home or whatever. It’s like, we all rely on our technology to remember those numbers for us. Once we lose that, we lose everything. Contact to the whole outside world.

— Andrea Webber

Avoiding Loss Require Enormous Effort

Attempting to avoid the loss of possessions takes enormous effort and can entail refraining from using important services. Precariously housed people may enter shelters to avoid seizure of possessions by bylaws (even if the shelter is non-ideal in other ways), or avoid shelters and supportive housing because of limitations on possessions.

People may avoid accessing services, such as meals to medical care, due to the risks of leaving possessions in spaces where they may be taken. Trying to avoid the loss of possessions is a constant project, and often not a successful one.

Nicholas Blomley: And he wouldn’t go to hospital?

Connie Long: And he wouldn’t go because the first time he went and he came back and all their stuff was gone. And he went up, he said he sat in the hospital for five hours just to get treated like a piece of shit and told “You can’t bring your stuff in here.” So he lost everything

They have bylaw people that have followed people after lunch back to where their tent is and then they take everything.

— Anonymous Interviewee

Loss of Possessions is Devastating

Losing stuff is devastating at many levels – it can put people at risk as these prior quotes explain.

But often the harm is also emotional: having stuff seized or destroyed also entails a devaluation of people. Often this turns on the ways in which others fail to recognize the importance of stuff to people. It’s assumed to be garbage. This fails to recognize the importance of things to people. When asked to list the various possessions lost over years, one DWS focus group listed ‘dignity.’

Something you had when you were a baby. The only thing you got to remember someone by. What is it? Oh, it’s just a piece of trash.

— Anonymous Interviewee