By Tan Mei Xi, Vancouver Co-Op Radio, CRFO 100.5 FM, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
VANCOUVER — Decrying what homeless advocates say is a lack of serious political commitment to build enough affordable homes, Vancouver’s latest incarnation of a homeless encampment — nicknamed “KT Tent City” — seems here to stay.
How KT Tent City Got Its Name
It’s just the most recent such encampment in the city, infamous for its persistent and worsening homelessness crisis, after its previous iterations were one by one displaced by court orders and police enforcement.
Now boasting 250 tents in Strathcona neighbourhood adjacent to the Downtown Eastside, its growing population say they’re desperate to end the cycle of displacement. The “KT” in their new encampment’s name stands for “Kennedy-Trudeau” a dis at Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whom they blame for failing to do enough.
Some residents of the lower-income Strathcona neighbourhood have extended compassion to their unhoused neighbours, while others say they’re struggling with sharp increases in crime and demand better long-term housing solutions. Fierce debates over the frequently relocating tent city have embroiled City Hall and the elected Park Board, but to the encampment’s residents, they demand solutions but see none.
To housing experts and advocates, the tent city is just a symptom with roots in years’ worth of lost housing units. Fiona York is no stranger to pitched struggles for housing. A member of the Carnegie Community Action Project, York has advocated for the unhoused of the Downtown Eastside community for years, including most recently for the since-displaced camps at Oppenheimer and CRAB parks.
The roots of this tent city are deep. And to paint a full picture of the roots of the new Strathcona encampment requires examining the forces of colonization on the Downtown Eastside, advocates like York say. In the City of Vancouver’s 2019 Homelessness Count, almost 40% of the city’s homeless identify as Indigenous. That’s compared to two per cent of the city’s population who identify as Indigenous.
A “very large proportion” of the camp’s members are Indigenous, York said.
The history of the encampments’ roots includes the closure of the Balmoral Hotel in 2017, followed by the city’s forced closure of the Regent Hotel just a year after — two single-resident occupancy buildings near Hastings and Main streets — over numerous health violations and resident complaints.
Those closures were likely factors that contributed to the growth of the tent city at Oppenheimer Park, York explained.
Shuttering both hotels meant that 325 shelter-rate housing units were lost, she said. Although many tenants were re-housed, some advocates estimate that a larger, unofficial number of people lost shelter when the hotels closed.
Wendy Pedersen, an organizer with the Downtown Eastside SRO Collaborative, told the Tyee she estimates 700 to 1,000 people found shelter in the Balmoral and Regent hotels as tenants, guests of tenants, or even in the hallways.
Fast forward to March 2020. The pandemic took its toll on the Downtown Eastside, which despite avoiding residents’ worst fears with few Covid-19 cases, also saw an increasing in crowding on the streets — as well as into the Oppenheimer Park encampment, York said.
“New people were at the park because they couldn’t stay in shelters, there were no daytime shelters,” she said. “There were so many other options that were no longer available.
“The population of the park and the number of people who were there during the day increased dramatically at that time.”
Closure Of The Oppenheimer
In mid-May, the provincial government ordered Oppenheimer closed down, and its residents removed. It declared the re-housing of the former tent-city residents a success, with over 200 former park residents moved to hotels and other supportive housing. And the city says it has added hundreds of units of affordable housing stock.
But York is doubtful of the city’s proclaimed success, however.
“Despite what the ministry says,” noted York, “despite the reports in the media that everyone was provided housing from Oppenheimer, there were quite a few people who did not access that.”
After the decampment of Oppenheimer, another tent city established itself adjacent to CRAB Park on land owned by the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority. The Supreme Court of B.C. then served an injunction order to remove the camp, and in mid-June, Vancouver police moved in one early morning and cleared the camp
Within hours, according to spokesperson Crissy Brett, the newly named KT Tent City found its beginnings at Strathcona Park.
Solutions nowhere in sight
“What we are really lacking,” said Strathcona Residents’ Association vice-president Katie Lewis, “is political courage.”
Lewis acknowledged that the tent city residents “are Strathcona residents as well,” and that her association has a duty to advocate for tent city residents.
To her, however, it seems that no immediate solutions are forthcoming. Tent city residents have called for 10,000 units of shelter-rate housing to be built throughout B.C. every year “so that no one is abandoned to the streets.” In the meantime, as a temporary solution, York noted that campers would like to stay at a site permanently, but with resources such as running water and washroom facilities to end the cycle of displacement.
However, there has been no indication from any level of government that a resourced site will soon be built. And promised social housing units are inadequate for the need, advocates argue.
In a statement, the Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction Shane Simpson noted the province “[does] not believe that a managed encampment is the answer,” and that the province is working with the City of Vancouver to ask the federal government for additional funds for affordable housing.
Lewis said that the Strathcona Residents’ Association has reached out to the Mayor “multiple times,” but have not heard back. Mayor Kennedy Stewart did not reply before time of publication.
But in a statement, the city said it does not control any vacant sites that would be suitable for a relocation of the encampment but that it continues to look for options for address homelessness alongside the provincial agency BC Housing.
“We’re not NIMBYs [not in my backyard],” said Lewis. “I like to think of us as YIMBY, like ‘yes, in our backyard’.
“That’s the approach we would like to take. And we realize that comes with complications and lots of discussions, and we’re up for that. But we also really need our political leaders to step up here because we can’t do it alone.”
The new encampment location, however, has been a struggle for some Strathcona residents who have homes and believe the camp is a source of increased crime.
“The real issue we’re dealing with is crime right now,” said Lewis. “There is an uptick in property crime that’s pretty significant.”
Residents have also reported assaults in the neighbourhood, according to Lewis.
However, York countered that the existence of KT Tent City has provided safety that its residents can’t find elsewhere.
“People always identify that they feel safer in a tent city,” she said, “compared to coming from the street or from shelters where there’s violence, there’s theft, there’s bedbugs, loss of hygiene, cockroaches, vermin, things stolen all the time, and violence and dealing in those settings.”
Listen to The Pulse on CFRO’s Friday Feature special on the Strathcona tent city, originally broadcast on July 24, 2020, or stream the full segment at Vancouver Co-op Radio’s website.