Housing

Homeless build a home in Vanouver city park

Campers say they found safety and community in Tent City, but courts decide otherwise
Melissa Fong

The majority of the remaining structures at the months-old Tent City at Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside were taken down by residents on Oct. 16, following a court injunction against the homeless encampment.

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Editors’ note: This is the introduction to a five-part series of stories from Tent City, which until Oct. 16 was located in a park in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and populated by people without housing. Over five workshops, camp residents worked to tell their own stories. Participants shared their stories with one another in a talking circle, learned to develop their narrative through popular education techniques and practiced writing through journalistic narrative. Following this introductory piece by editor and facilitator Melissa Fong, the series will consist of five stories published by Ricochet. Special thanks go to our new authors from Tent City: Rita, Zucchini, Erica, Scott and Jason. Ricochet would like to acknowledge the City of Vancouver for helping fund this work through the 2014 Homelessness Action Week grant.

“I’m really sad and hurt for the injunction. Where is the justice? This is the only real thing they own or have comfort in. Shelters and SROs are temporary and an unhealthy environment,“ says Stella August, an Indigenous elder who has been supporting Tent City.

Many shelters and SROs — the city’s crowded and rundown single-room occupancy hotels — are ridden with bedbugs and cockroaches. The close quarters also mean that if a person coughs beside you, you are at risk of catching that cough. This is a fundamental problem with temporary and inadequate shelters: they are not homes. Over the course of three months, people at Tent City built homes for themselves and kept the insides of their tents organized, while volunteers in the community helped pick up trash, recycle and cook three warm meals a day.

This is a fundamental problem with temporary and inadequate shelters: they are not homes.

“In shelters they can’t even cook. Here, they have three square meals a day and snacks anytime they want,” August adds, explaining that making the kitchen and food accessible to everyone was one of the main goals for the camp. “When people’s bellies are full, they can relax and have a restful sleep.”

Visiting the camp on a daily basis, I witnessed the reality of a community working together to not only put shelter over their heads, but also create the intangible elements that create a sense of home.

Mainstream media have consistently misrepresented the Downtown Eastside and the efforts at Tent City. This process continued during the BC Supreme Court proceedings, as the City of Vancouver Parks Board, represented by lawyers Ben Parkin and Iain Dixon, sought an injunction to dismantle the camp.

“Sun News, CBC and the Province have done a lot of bashing of the camps. They take snippets of what the fire marshals and police have said and distort it into the story they want to tell,” says Audrey Siegel, an activist, candidate for Vancouver City Council with COPE and one of the persons named on the injunction.

Siegel sees the injunction as an abuse of power against those who are poor and without homes. “The courts refuse to see that it is much safer at this camp than if they [residents] were to be on their own.”

Since losing the injunction case on Oct. 8, Siegel has been distressed about the bullying tactics used by the courts. “The people named on the injunction are held legally responsible for the court fees, the city fees, the unnecessary policing and fire marshal fees.”

The City’s lawyers “had a stack of papers like phone books, full of legal documents. All this energy and these resources are being wasted to make a case against us when they could be investing it and solving homelessness.”

The legal justifications to remove the residents at Oppenheimer, argues Siegel, are stacked in a way that validates the colonial nation-state, despite the City of Vancouver’s recent June announcement that it sits on the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. The courts approached the case with the idea of protecting “leisure,” as though it were a person in danger.

“This is Oppenheimer field, not park. A land for freedom. People have the right to remain,” says August.

The one-sided court proceedings concerned lawyers at PIVOT, an organization that has provided legal advice and representation to residents at the camp. “Evidence seen only showed the potential risks and in no way represented the actual camp,” says lawyer DJ Larkin. The courts looked at potential risks from the point of view of a safely housed person. To those who are housed, Tent City may seem to pose potential risks, but for many of those without housing, Tent City was their safest and most stable option.

For those without housing, Tent City was the safest and most stable option.

“Over two months, they picked out incidences that didn’t represent the actual day to day of the camp at all. They made the case that there was a well-known sex offender seen at the camp. They also said that somebody fired a gun, when it was in fact a BB gun,” says Larkin.

By selectively using evidence against Tent City, the problems that did exist at Oppenheimer were sensationalized.

In fact, some of the problems at the camp stemmed from the City’s decisions. Denying campers access to the washrooms on site and threatening to remove the kitchen contributed to unsanitary and stressful conditions that the City argued were a health risk. Media misrepresentations of the camp as dangerous or hazardous have continued to pathologize poor people in the Downtown Eastside.

None of the publications about Tent City or discussions in court allowed for the perspectives of those actually living there.

Few recognized that volunteers organized nightly to do security watch (for internal support and external defence against police) as well as unloaded and chopped wood donated for the sacred fire almost daily. A chef with experience working on cruise ships and about half a dozen campers cooked three hot meals a day, and the food was carefully organized to ensure that perishables were cooked as soon as possible due to the lack of a fridge. People worked out their problems within the community, like any other community, because they would rather live there together than in insecure, temporary, bedbug-filled housing where they would face harassment from management or landlords.

Mayor Gregor Robertson echoed the concerns that Oppenheimer had become unsafe and unsanitary. Regular campers at Tent City said that Robertson had not visited the site.

Failure to understand the reality of life and community at Oppenheimer led the BC Supreme Court to rule in favour of evicting an estimated 250 people who have called Tent City home.

“The judge cited evidence that there would be housing available in October, but there is no evidence or guarantee that the housing will be available to folks at Tent City,” says Larkin.

Though Tent City has been forced to pack up, the crisis of homelessness in Vancouver continues. To begin to properly understand this crisis and think seriously about solutions, those living on the streets and in unsafe shelters need to be able to tell their own stories.

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