Finding family in Vancouver's Tent City

Homelessness intensifies the struggle to deal with health issues

Editors’ note: This is part four 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.

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Scott and Jason have been pillars of activism in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. Scott took the lead in building a kitchen on the northeast corner of the camp. He was also on the court document for the City of Vancouver injunction to remove Tent City. He has been fighting the City for three years now for affordable housing, and finally had the courage to get a lawyer and take it up in a legal battle. Similarly, Jason is described by his community as someone who probably volunteers too much. He takes immense pride in his accomplishments in helping fellow Downtown Eastside residents.

Both men’s stories demonstrate how inadequate government supports for people with disabilities can affect individual lives. Health issues prevent Scott and Jason from entering the formal workplace, and they survive by volunteering in the only communities that understand and accept them.

Scott Bonnyman

I grew up in a family of 14 children and have always known poverty. My parents separated when I was the ripe age of four years old, and I ended up in foster care. When I was 13, I fell into the wrong crowd and got involved in a car-stealing ring, which lasted for about a year and a half before I got caught by the police. Needless to say, breaking the law and acting like I was some kind of wild child was ripping my family further apart.

Foster care wasn’t easy, and I fell into depression. The physical abuse I experienced in foster care made me feel like I was no good. Then when I was about 15, I was placed into an all-boys school and was introduced to the wonderful life of sexual abuse, which lasted until I was 16. I escaped to Newfoundland, wanting a better life. I ended up traveling around Canada and found myself homeless for the first time.

I moved to Ontario, and a chap approached me about a job, saying I could earn $1,000 a week! I jumped on it. I didn’t even care what the job was; I just wanted to live a normal life. It turned out that the job was more than I had bargained for, because this was the moment that I was introduced to the world of organized crime. I was now working for the mob.

Those years have been among the biggest eye-openers of my life. I had more money than brains at the time, and I knew I just wanted to help people whom I was once like — down and out. I met OCAP (The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty) and started to get involved with direct action protest. The more I was involved, the more I knew that is what I wanted to do. I got out of organized crime, started my own business in Ontario and got married.

My marriage was unhappy. We fought and I was accused of cheating, which is ironic because one day I came home unexpectedly to find her and my brother in bed together. I lost it when I saw them together. I shot him and ended up in the pen for 18 years. When I got out I moved to Vancouver to start over. I had lost everything that I had worked so hard for. I became homeless once again but continued to find purpose in fighting for proper affordable housing.

Life is a lot harder in Vancouver. I’m in a wheelchair and receive support for disability. However, I notice that there seems to be much less support in Vancouver, as opposed to the Maritimes and Ontario. We have the highest cost of living here but the lowest welfare rate. The application process itself is long, and there don’t seem to be as many case workers. By the time they try to help it’s too little too late.

I ended up at Tent City when I lost my job working at an SRO (single-room occupancy). Finding a place was tough in a wheelchair. Many buildings don’t have elevators or accessible entrances. When I went to Tent City I felt more safe and secure than in other alternatives for the homeless. Living here has brought more stability than I have had in many years.

My experience at Tent City has been very interesting to say the least. I would begin by saying that it’s the closest to a real family that I’ve had for many years. Yes, there have been some hiccups, but if someone could tell me in what family or in what country that you don’t experience these types of disagreements, I’d love to meet you. All families, communities and societies have problems.

I have been part of Tent City almost from the very beginning. I have had my bad days, but I will say that the good has outweighed the bad, hands down. I now have a stable family, which I have longed for all my life.

I had a vision from early on about building a proper kitchen for my new family and community, for which I am blessed. With small donations, some help and a lot of my own sweat, I was able to build a kitchen. The opportunity to give back to my community is what matters most. There have been some troubles with building the kitchen but, through all of this, it has allowed me to become more patient. I am proud to say that this process has made me more understanding with people and has given me the gift of better understanding my community.

Being hands-on has made it much easier for me to have a clear picture of where there isn’t enough support and the areas we can all work together on. I want to help make life far more substantial for everyone in general. I can honestly say that Tent City is far more of a home setting than I’ve had in many years. I’m proud to say that Tent City is my home, as I feel more love and security here than I have had in a great deal of years.

Jason Michael Phillips

My name is Jason Michael Phillips. Since birth I have been plagued with difficulty. I was born with diabetes. My sugar gets very low, and I have seizures regularly. The seizures are sometimes embarrassing and leave me vulnerable. During my seizures people have stolen my money, wallet and everything in my pockets. Nobody helps me, and I am told about it or find out later.

My regular seizures mean I can’t work. They say I’m a risk to everyone I could work with and myself. Therefore, I am on permanent disability. I get a minimal amount of money to live with.

I currently get $1,391 a month. I’m going to show you what this looks like to someone with my condition. I spend $300 on insulin. I spend $450 a month on a dispensing fee for my medication. I don’t have a home, and therefore I don’t have a fridge to keep my medication in. That means every time I take my medication, which is three times a day, I have to pay $5 for the dispensary to put the insulin in the needle. This leaves me with $641 for food and rent. Due to my diabetes, I need to spend more on food. And even though welfare-rate housing is $375, it is almost impossible to find a unit, especially if you are having seizures and are considered a danger to everyone around you.

It is impossible math. If I had a home I wouldn’t have to pay the dispensary fee, because I would have a fridge to store my medication in. But how do you find a home in a city that is so unaffordable? I’m not allowed to work. I’m not even allowed to volunteer due to my seizures.

I sometimes think about ending it all. Once I did a gram of heroin to try to kill myself. I think I was dead for more than five minutes. My roommate’s girlfriend found me and brought me back to life. I was pissed that she found me. This was not a “call for help” suicide attempt. I knew I wanted to die because I was tired of living this way. The pain of being brought back to life deters me from trying again. So I try to make my life useful now.

I do a lot for the Downtown Eastside, and it makes me feel useful and valuable. The most heroic thing I’ve done is save a 16-year-old girl from being raped by a convicted rapist. I stopped him from hurting her and he got put away for five years in jail. This experience gave me a new start in life. Everyone was proud of me, and I didn’t want to ruin being a public hero.

But I am still in a lot of day-to-day pain. I still can’t accept that I self-medicate with street drugs. I am an honest drug addict. I don’t steal or rob people. I recycle garbage every day, and bin and sell merchandise that I find or is donated to me on the street to make a meager living. I don’t like the fact that I smoke crack every day but I need it to escape. The day-to-day is so painful and the seizures are unbearable. When I’m high I don’t hurt or worry about my condition.

I was living at Oppenheimer Park even before Tent City started. I’ve been living here for three years already. It was illegal to sleep here before Tent City too. Sometimes the cops or garbagemen would toss my tarp or belongings in the trash and laugh at me. Last year, some rookie cops beat me up because I was in a peaceful protest for affordable BC housing.

This will be my sixth winter in Vancouver. It’s nice to see people come together to fight homelessness. People watch out for each other here in Tent City, and I never get my stuff stolen. People are constantly helping me with my diabetes. They know I have to eat more often and be on a special diet so they give me their empties and I can use that money to buy what I need. But it’s a little tougher to live in a dense camp. You don’t get much privacy from each other. But then again, you can’t expect much privacy when you live in public.

My hope is that we will move to Crab Park (a park just north of Oppenheimer). That’s where all the rich people walk their dogs nowadays. It’s also more strategic because there’s only one way in and one way out. This is war for proper housing.

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