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Faces of a protest: St. John's camp enlists public support for housing campaign

As a homeless encampment outside Newfoundland and Labrador's Confederation Building heads into its third day, the population has grown slightly and support is pouring in from the public.

Another resident joined on Thursday, supplies pouring in from public

What's it like sleeping in a tent outside Confederation Building? Hear from those who are living through it

7 months ago
Duration 2:55
The number of people living in tents outside Confederation Building is growing, and those living there say all they want is a safe place to live.

Emily Broomfield showed up to a tent encampment in St. John's on Thursday morning with two suitcases and a pair of wishes — to have a safe place to sleep at night, and to not stay for long.

She took the bus from Corner Brook, where she'd spent six months in and out of homelessness, in hopes of finding an apartment in the capital city. Her situation was bleak, but her outlook was positive.

An Inuk from Labrador, Broomfield was waiting for either Newfoundland and Labrador Housing or the Nunatsiavut government to find a more permanent place.

"I'm just waiting to hear back from them," she said. "It's just a little bit stressful trying to find a place."

Broomfield is one of about a dozen people living in tents across from Confederation Building — the home of Newfoundland and Labrador's government — in St. John's.

The encampment started as a protest and has grown into a small community along Prince Philip Drive, one of the busiest thoroughfares in the capital city. 

Passersby honked in support Thursday morning, with some pulling their vehicles onto the sidewalk to offload supplies.

One man reached into the back of his truck and hauled out a brand new tent, still in the box.

He dumped it on the lawn without saying a word and drove away.

A red tent bag sitting on green grass.
A man pulled up in a truck and offloaded a brand new tent as people milled about the encampment. He didn't leave his name and didn't want to be recognized for the deed. (Ryan Cooke/CBC)

Searching for safety 

Another showed up with about a dozen meals of Mary Brown's fried chicken, which was distributed among protesters and tent residents.

Robert Osmond, one of the first people to pitch a tent in the field, took the opportunity to enjoy a hot meal before heading out in search of a public shower.

Osmond said he was evicted from a house on Old Broad Cove Road in Portugal Cove-St. Philip's, only to discover the home had been renovated and posted for double the rent.

A man holding a box of fast food. He's standing in front of tents.
Robert Osmond was the first person to pitch a tent in the park. He was there on Thursday when someone dropped off boxes of Mary Brown's chicken. (Ryan Cooke/CBC)

"Just a safe place to live, I think that's all any of us really want," he said. "Some of us here have mental health issues. Some of us have drug addictions. Some of us have criminal records. Some of us have service animals we can't even bring to a shelter."

Osmond said it's been stressful and cold but not as bad as most people would imagine.

"We're all here together," he said. "We're all supporting each other."

Tents in front of a large government building.
Tents are set up in view of Confederation Building, the seat of government in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Ryan Cooke/CBC)

The group has been visited by staff from Newfoundland and Labrador Housing, as well as politicians from the NDP and Progressive Conservatives. Several members said they hadn't seen anyone from the Liberal government as of Thursday morning.

Osmond said he'd like to see the province's leaders do more than just pop by for a visit.

"I would like for them to spend a night in a tent themselves," he said. "I wouldn't wish this on anybody, but I think it's time for some of them to come down and spend the night with us."

A woman in a black toque and an orange and yellow reflective jacket. She's standing in a green field with tents behind her.
Lisa Reardigan is helping out those staying at the encampment, rallying people on social media to drop off supplies. (Ryan Cooke/CBC)

Lisa Reardigan spent Thursday morning buzzing around the park in an orange reflective jacket, handing out blankets and supplies to people staying in tents. 

She's not sleeping in a tent, but Reardigan has been helping people keep their phones charged, bringing them to appointments and doing whatever she can to help.

"Everybody is really respectful," she said. "We're here for a much bigger cause that needs to be addressed."

'Their voices matter'

Reardigan said she's always been an advocate for people in need and felt compelled to help when she saw the protest take shape. 

"They just need to see that their voices matter," she said. "I think they're starting to see that."

A man with a beard wearing a plaid flannel jacket. He's standing in view of Confederation Building.
Dave Cooper moved into the encampment soon after it began. He's been homeless for over a decade and says he's tired of sleeping on the streets or staying in shelters. (Ryan Cooke/CBC)

Dave Cooper walked around the park on Thursday morning, enjoying some peace of mind for a change. He said he's been homeless for over a decade, and is tired of staying in shelters.

"I get robbed every month," he said. "I wake up and all of my stuff is gone."

Cooper echoed the calls of Osmond and the others — he just wants a place to live where he can rest his head without worries. For now, he's finding that in a tent.

Osmond said the group is willing to stay in a tent outside Confederation Building for as long as it takes to get their message across. They want safe, affordable houses and they want to see action taken immediately, he said.

"How long are you willing to stay here on Confederation Hill?" a reporter asked.

"As long as it takes. If I have to die out here with these people to prove a point, then that's what will happen," he said.

"Nobody should have to freeze to death outside and this is what we're trying to make a point about. If we have to stay out here until we freeze to death, until we find affordable and safe housing, then I guess all of us are here for the long run."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ryan Cooke is a multiplatform journalist with CBC News in St. John's. His work often takes a deeper look at social issues and the human impact of public policy. Originally from rural Newfoundland, he attended the University of Prince Edward Island and worked for newspapers throughout Atlantic Canada before joining CBC in 2016. He can be reached at ryan.cooke@cbc.ca.

With files from Heather Gillis

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