sanctioned tent city

Will Vancouver create a sanctioned camp for unhoused people

By Jen St. Denis, The Tyee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Strathcona Park tent city supporters, neighbourhood residents and a Downtown Eastside community activist are pleading with governments to  create a sanctioned camp for unhoused people.

Vancouver’s Tent Cities

After moving from  Oppenheimer Park to a lot near Crab Park to Strathcona Park, Vancouver’s  current tent city — dubbed the “Kennedy Trudeau” or KT camp by  organizers — has now swelled to 360 tents, according to the park board.  According to Chrissy Brett, a camp organizer, anywhere from 250 to 500  people live at the camp.

Since 2016, there has been a large tent  city somewhere in Vancouver, at first moving from empty lot to empty lot  and now to city parks.

The encampments have endured despite repeated attempts by the city and province to house residents and dismantle the camps. 

In May, the province took  the unprecedented step of using a public safety order to dismantle a  two-year-old camp at Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver and two camps in  Victoria. It leased space in hotels to temporarily house residents.

Yet tent encampments remain in both cities.

Support Our Most Vulnerable

“While the politicians continue to play hot  potato with people’s lives… at least the people in my circles will step  forward and hold our most vulnerable people up, in line with what we do  with our real traditional Indigenous communities and ensure that nobody  is left behind,” Brett said.

Camp Self Governed

Some residents of the current camp at  Strathcona Park are high needs, and organizers work daily to diffuse  conflicts before they escalate, Brett said. The camp is led by  Indigenous matriarchs who enforce rules about who can stay in the camp,  and violence isn’t tolerated, Brett said.

With B.C. still in the midst of the  COVID-19 pandemic, the city has installed an extra hand-washing station  at the park and three porta-potties.

But city staff say camp organizers have  been opposed to the presence of city outreach workers in the camp, so  staff do not know the exact number of people living at the camp and have  difficulty assessing their welfare.


Veronica Butler, another camp supporter,  said residents need better access to water. There is also no overdose  prevention site operating at the camp.

Overdoses are common, Butler said, and camp  residents and organizers have had to respond or call paramedics to  help. The camp does have an adequate supply of the overdose reversal  drug naloxone, she said.

Brett and other organizers are adamant that the camp is needed and provides a safer community for unhoused people.

But Butler said the location at the park is not ideal, creating conflict with too many other community needs.

Strathcona is a residential neighbourhood  east of the Downtown Eastside, with heritage houses and social housing  apartments. Strathcona Park is the biggest in the neighbourhood, with a  playground, open fields, a tennis court and a field house.

‘I Support Them’

Katie Lewis, Vice President of the Strathcona  Residents’ Association, said she has a good relationship with Brett and  believes “the intentions are good, and I support them.”

But she said there’s been an undeniable  change in the neighbourhood since the tent city moved in around seven  weeks ago, and her neighbours are scared and on edge, especially if they  have children.

Last week Lewis observed a  man who she said appeared to be in the grip of psychosis pick up a  five-year-old child at nearby MacLean Park and shake him. She added that  another mother found a purse at MacLean Park; when she looked inside,  she found a gun.

Lewis believes the man who picked up the  child is a longtime neighbourhood resident and may not be tied to the  camp. Brett said if she learns that any resident has been violent, they  would not be welcome in the camp.

Questions Move To The Park

Karen Ward, a Downtown Eastside resident  and community activist, is critical of the actions of activists who have  been supporting the camps. She questioned the decision to move to  Strathcona Park and fears it could put unhoused campers at risk of  arrest and further criminalization.

“People are in a vulnerable state. People  have died and been assaulted, seriously, and the recklessness of getting  into a fight…. You’re inviting criminalization on yourself and  others,” Ward said.

“You may have good intentions, it starts out OK, but a month and a half later it’s a mess.”

But Ward also said the city should have  anticipated that homeless camp numbers would swell in the summer — they  always do — and put in place a plan that took into account COVID-19  precautions.

Solution is a Sanctioned Camp

Brett, Lewis and Ward all say the solution  is one or more sanctioned tent cities. But it’s a route the City of  Vancouver and the provincial government have been reluctant to take.

“We recognize that there are a variety of  reasons why people may be sleeping outside, but we do not believe that  encampments like the one in Strathcona Park and the one that was  situated on federal land at Crab Park represent an appropriate solution  to the homelessness crisis,” city communications staff said in an email  to The Tyee.

“The City does not control any vacant sites  that would be feasible for this purpose and we also believe people  should have a place indoors to sleep; therefore we are continuing to  focus our efforts on working with senior government and BC Housing to  rapidly expand shelter and housing capacity as the most effective,  appropriate response to the needs of homeless individuals across  Vancouver and staying in Strathcona Park at present.”

BC Housing Looking For Solutions

A statement sent to The Tyee on behalf of  Shane Simpson, B.C.’s minister of social development and poverty  reduction, says BC Housing is working to find people housing and the  provincial health officer has released guidelines for homeless  encampments during COVID-19.

Lewis said none of the solutions she’s  heard from government, including a provincial “navigation centre” to  help residents find homes, will be in place fast enough to address  current safety concerns.

Provide Something Like a Refugee Camp

Brett would like to see the federal  government step in and provide a response similar to refugee camps. She  said that for many unhoused people a tent is preferable to a shelter  spot or a single-room occupancy hotel, and it’s important that people be  able to choose the best living situation for them.

“The first thing they put into a refugee  camp is water, bathrooms, then electricity to bring normalcy and  sanity… to an unsettled situation, and lastly showers,” Brett said.

Different Location

Lewis said the Strathcona Residents’  Association wants the camp to move to a site less than a kilometre to  the west near Pacific Central Station that is currently being used as a  parking lot for a Lexus dealership. Nearby Trillium Park is another  possibility, because there are more showers at that site, Lewis said.

Sanctioned Camps with COVID Precautions

Ward said that supported tent cities should  be designed with COVID-19 precautions in mind and suggested multiple  sites with no more than 50 people at each site. City-owned parking lots,  vacant lots or golf courses are all possible locations, Ward said.

She envisions camps with a trio of  relatively simple amenities: proper bathrooms and running water, an  overdose prevention site and visits from public health workers.

Ward doesn’t believe locating tent cities  in parks is a good solution, especially in the age of COVID-19. East  Vancouver residents, housed, precariously housed and unhoused, all  desperately need access to public space.

“Let’s anticipate a little bit into the  future,” Ward said of the response from various levels of government.  “I’m pretty sure that [the camps are] not going to magically disappear. I  don’t see what the plan is here. And people are in trouble.” 

Top photo credit: The KT camp in Strathcona Park was set up after two previous ones were shut down by the City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Port Authority earlier in the summer – Jesse Winter photo

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