Housing

Learning to love again in Tent City

Couple begins life together in camp, as wait for affordable housing drags on
Melissa Fong

Rita (name changed at her request) and Zucchini decided to relocate to Tent City after moving from shelter to shelter. They worked hard to build a home for themselves at Oppenheimer Park, saving to buy their own tent and furnishing their new home to be as comfortable as possible. Their stories demonstrate the precariousness of shelter life. Shelters and SROs (single-room occupancy hotels) are not homes, they are band-aid solutions to homelessness. Being able to go back to their tent every day and not have to worry about bedbugs in shelters or harassment from landlords has been a refreshing change from constant housing insecurity. The love and support they have for each other is an untold story that deserves to be shared.

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Editors’ note: This is part two of 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. 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.

Rita

My name is Rita. I came to Canada in 1975 from Fiji. There were some good times with my family, like getting KFC and McDonalds with my dad. But I also had a bitter childhood. My father would hit me with a belt or buckle on my bare skin. My father also molested me — the most horrible thing someone can do. Shortly after I was put into a transition house, my dad was arrested, but he was let go because he blamed the abuse on his medication. My parents divorced when I was 16 years old, but my dad was still given visitation rights. The abuse continued when I stayed at his apartment. The court rules.

I am a single mother of a baby girl, who is now 12 years old. I applied for BC Housing when she was only nine months old. I am still on the waiting list. They said that a two-parent household is higher priority than my case. I guess their rationale is that there are more people in the household. But how can two incomes be more in need than just myself?

They keep saying I am not a priority. I was working two jobs to keep up with rent and food. If I get sick, or my daughter is sick, there is no income at all. Some months I had to choose between rent and baby formula. This is a decision no mother should have to make.

After losing my part-time job, with no notice and no support from my union, I applied for welfare and EI. It took eight weeks for all of the paperwork to fall into place, and at this time I was already behind on my rent by three months. I would pay the landlord a small portion of rent after I paid for food for me and my daughter. Pleading my case to my landlord was never easy and, finally, my landlord evicted me, stating he wanted to take over my unit for his family.

I stayed at a couple shelters, first the Belkin House and then the Lookout in the Downtown Eastside. This is my first time in the Downtown Eastside and being homeless. When I came here it was so different than what I was used to. Street drugs, prostitution, people high on drugs — this was all new to me. I don’t do any drugs.

I met Zucchini at the shelter. We became friends but soon got closer. When our time was up at the shelter we talked and decided to move to Tent City. Living here hasn’t been easy. On the first night, Zucchini and I argued. The tent was so small, holding us and our belongings. But Zucchini has helped to make this feel like home.

I can truly say that Tent City is my home. Of course I want a real house and to make a home there. My daughter lives with my sister now. If I could have real housing to call my own I could live with my daughter. But housing is so unaffordable, and I have made the best with what we have here. I’ve met some people, made friends, and we watch out for each other. We have chairs, a table and a mattress to sleep on. So that is our home.

We volunteer at Mission Possible and we can have something to eat there. We watch movies at the Carnegie Community Centre and go for walks to get refreshed. We are making lives for ourselves.

We have our ups and downs, but we talk it over and always resolve our problems. He doesn’t leave my side. If we need to go to different places he tries to call me to make sure I am okay. He made me trust, laugh and love again. This is my experience at Tent City.

Zucchini

Every day we hear and read reports surrounding the Downtown Eastside. Housing is often put on the back burner, leaving us with horrifying stories about what it's like to live here. Some may be true, but this does not mean it is an accurate depiction of the holistic experience.

I arrived in Vancouver in 1999. Shortly after arriving, I was struck by a car and my leg was broken in three places. I lived in the hospital. When I was released I stayed in a shelter in the Downtown Eastside. I moved from shelter to shelter for three to four years. I filled out the forms for BC Housing, but everyone was really seeing the cutbacks at the point. It is tough to find support.

Health and mental stability is important to function with life’s day-to-day problems. I’ve been waiting for 15 years for proper housing. Between me and my girlfriend, we have 28 years combined of waiting for BC Housing.

My girlfriend’s daughter calls me Zucchini. I live in a tent at Tent City now. Home for me, now, is the tent where I live with my girlfriend. Her daughter can’t live with us because it’s not a safe environment for a 12-year-old to be in.

It’s obvious that Tent City has grown in size and more people are joining, so that their calls for safe and affordable housing are heard. Every night is a different night. Not knowing what will happen next is the scariest part. My girlfriend and I have to eat out three times a day because we have no kitchen to cook for ourselves in. Taking a shower is unpredictable; we take showers where and when we have the opportunity. It’s cold at night, and the Vancouver rain doesn’t help matters.

Our moods change like the weather. Being put in shelters is not the solution to an affordable housing shortage. It’s like putting a bandaid on a bullet wound. It may stop the bleeding temporarily but does not solve the underlying problem.

Tent City is an opportunity for people to protest. I come from Europe and believe that everyone has a voice, and if many voices unite, the sound will carry and be heard loudly. This is why Tent City continues to grow. It’s for the hope that we will be heard, finally.

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