“Preparing for a hurricane”: Strathcona tent city braces for displacement

On the morning of Wednesday April 21st dozens of city workers showed up at Strathcona Park’s tent city with garbage trucks, backhoes, and blue fencing, chaperoned by police and park rangers. Sadie, who had been living at camp for two months, found out they were coming because another resident issued a warning with the common tent city code word for police: “Six-up in the park! They’re taking everything that ain’t in your tent!”

Last May, near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the City responded to a Provincial order signed by the BC NDP Minister of Public Safety Mike Farnworth, requiring “all persons camping in, residing in or occupying Oppenheimer Park to evacuate the area” by May 9th by sending in the police to break up the two year old Oppenheimer Park tent city. A number of the displaced tent city residents who did not receive hotel or other newly released temporary housing placements established a new camp at CRAB Park under the Indigenous leadership of Chrissy Brett (Nuxalk) and Veronica Butler (Anishinaabe). Last June, Vancouver’s Port Authority received a court order to send the police in, yet again, to raid the CRAB Park tent city, forcing many of its residents to relocate; they quickly set up a new tent city at Strathcona Park.

The tent city at Strathcona Park was originally named Camp KT, signalling Mayor Kennedy Stewart and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s shared responsibility for the housing crisis. It was recently renamed Camp HOPES, which stands for Homeless Organization for Protection, Empowerment, and Survival. This tent city in Strathcona Park has faced countless attacks and smears from media, property owners, and small business owners. For nearly a year, homeowners organized in the Strathcona Residents Association have cried out for police and government to scatter the tent city, relying on the narrative that the camp is a fountainhead of violence and criminality, endangering their personal property, their high property values, their families, and their otherwise beautiful, respectable neighbourhood.

“No Temporary Shelters Permitted” in Strathcona Park, map from Donnie Rosa’s April 9th Order

Bowing to anti-poor backlash, the Parks Board has been waging an escalating attack against the tent city over the past several months. In February, Parks Board General Manager Donnie Rosa issued an order to clear tent city residents from the west side of the park and create a fenced perimeter around the remaining east side portion of the tent city. Then, on April 9th, Rosa issued another order extending the ban to the northeastern portion of camp with the purpose of shutting down Camp HOPES for good by April 30th. 

Two weeks later the City ramped up its attacks once again, sending in dozens of city workers alongside park rangers and police, to throw away anything not inside a tent and install more fencing along the east side of the camp. The fencing further shrunk the camp perimeter, part of the City’s plan to curb new people from moving into the tent city. 

The “public” – coded as property owners and respectable white, middle-class citizens – may breathe a sigh of relief at the sight of the City slowly destroying the Strathcona Park tent city. But the residents of camp paint a different picture, one which reveals the City’s displacement of camp as another wave of violence against low income people.

“You’re living on the edge”: The city is compounding the stress and violence of poverty

Many residents were surprised by the City’s ramped up assault against the camp. One couple, Rovina and Donovan, among the first to move to Strathcona Park after the Port Authority scattered CRAB Park tent city, described waking up to the sounds of backhoes and garbage trucks. Park rangers and police escorted the city workers as they installed new fencing and threw people’s belongings into garbage trucks. “We were scared,” said Rovina, “We heard this commotion going back and forth, we didn’t know what the heck was going on.” 

Donovon added, “After what happened at CRAB park, you’re living on the edge. I don’t want to come here one morning and hear ‘you have one hour!’ We started packing now. It’s like we’re preparing for a hurricane.” 

“No one was ever left alone”: The city is attacking a space of Indigenous healing 

For Indigenous residents, the City breaking up the camp is another wave of colonial displacement. Haven, a Coast Salish resident of the camp, talked about how Indigenous people living at the tent city have been working to heal from ongoing colonial violence:

Our chests were dug out with the residential schools. They took our culture and our dancing and drumming and ceremonial ways and that’s when we were left with a gaping hole in our chests, and we’ve been trying to fill that ever since. We need our medicines and traditional values and teachings that we’ve had, and our praying. We prayed, we went to sweats and took care of ourselves physically and mentally, emotionally that way.

Residential schools separated Indigenous people from their kin, and constant displacement by all levels of government and police continues these separations by disrupting Indigenous healing and self-organization.

Haven defends the camp as a site of healing from colonial violence because living there means Indigenous people can be together. For Haven, being displaced from the park would mean being isolated and being “put in a box again” in supportive housing or a shelter.

Haven remembered that before colonization, “No one was ever left alone. We took what we needed for our families, ourselves, and gave back to the land.” By destroying the camp the City is disrupting Indigenous kinship and healing by separating Indigenous people from each other, scattering them into alleys, building entrances, and isolating them in SROs and shelters.

“Displacing camp puts people at risk”: The city is endangering people to overdose and abuse 

Ty posing just outside the fenced off area of the park (Red Braid Alliance)

Tyrone is a Thai and Black man who has struggled to find housing because of racism. “I went to a bunch of viewings,” shared Tyrone, “For most of them, I got a look, like I’m not serious, or lying about what I’m saying. I didn’t get to a single one [even though I have] good references, good credit.” Tyrone said he had a $2200 budget but still could not find a room. In his words, “If that’s not systemic racism I don’t know what is.” He came across the tent city last year and began living at camp once the winter hit. Tyrone put it simply: “Displacing camp puts people at risk.”

Sadie, another resident of the tent city, highlighted the crucial role of the tent city in keeping people who use drugs alive. “We’re the ones out here narcanning people saving people’s lives,” said Sadie, “It’s your homeless sister or homeless brother that is going to save the day. All they want is to be housed, they’ve just found themselves in a shitty situation, and they’re out here taking care of your brother or son.” By displacing the camp, the City is attacking a site where residents can defend against overdose deaths. 

But the camp is more than just a site of harm reduction. Tyrone described how the strength of the camp is in the sense of responsibility and accountability residents develop towards others in their community. He reflected, “I didn’t give a shit about my neighbours when I was housed. I give a shit about my neighbours here.” The accountability that develops between people “goes both ways,” he said, and “creates selflessness.” 

Being part of camp also means people have a way to keep each other safe from abuse. Tyrone described that being part of the camp means residents can self-organize and defend against others “trying to steal from people, preying on women, and preying on men” because “you can tell who’s supposed to be here and who’s not supposed to be here.” People who come into camp and case residents’ homes they do not know “get chased out real quick.” 

Forcing people indoors will replace community accountability, which depends on low-income people being able to self-organize, with the top-down, repressive management of cops, shelter staff, and supportive housing workers. Tyrone asked if someone runs into trouble, “how are people going to find me if I am shut off in a building somewhere?” 

“We have no choice”: The city is forcing people into insecure shelter

BC Housing uses the term “indoor spaces” to describe the kind of units residents are being offered. The term “indoor spaces” is intentional, covering up the fact that many people are being placed into shelters, not permanent residences, where social service operators can evict residents at will. Those who do get into housing, are placed in a cramped SRO hotel room that restricts guest access and where residents are no less likely to be evicted, even though their rights are supposed to be protected by the BC’s Residential Tenancy Act.

John Doe was one of the first residents to move into Strathcona Park after the Port Authority dismantled CRAB Park tent city. John refused to be put on a list for shelters or temporary supportive housing. Outreach workers offered him a room in the Howard Johnson hotel in downtown Vancouver, which BC Housing had contracted as temporary housing in order to close down Vancouver’s tent cities. “I’m not taking it,” he said. “Why would I go there? People need to get on their feet and we’re being put in places where we can’t get on our feet.” He pointed out how the government claims to house people, but “in these places, they kick some people out and then put other people in.” John’s solution was to wait until he is offered work so he can afford to rent a suitable place. 

After living at camp for over ten months, Donovan and Rovina were finally put on a list to get into an “indoor space” last Monday. They asked to be housed together, but outreach staff could not guarantee they would be. Donovan said, “Worse comes to worst we’ll be in different buildings. Or in different suites.” Even if the conditions do not fit what they need, many residents will take what they are offered because, like Sherry said, “We have no choice.” 

The City cannot sweep the housing crisis out of sight!

Through BC Housing the Province bought six properties, equaling about 340 units as part of their plan to offer “an indoor space to everyone currently sleeping overnight at Strathcona Park by the end of April.”

BC Housing and its sub-contracted outreach workers with PHS Community Services Society, and Atira Women’s Resource Society deployed nearly 50 outreach staff into camp on Thursday April 22nd to tell residents where they will be placed and to start removing their belongings as part of the government strategy to shut down camp on April 30th.

The government is sweeping the crisis of poverty under the rug of “indoor spaces.” The City’s ever-present threats to destroy tent cities often hang in the back of residents’ minds, causing them fear and uncertainty over when they must pack up their belongings and leave. 

The City and BC Housing provide residents with a false choice over whether or not to be added on a list for housing. Either you accept a unit that doesn’t fit your needs and risk being evicted from it, or you refuse the housing BC Housing offers you and you are forced out of the security of camp to face more dangerous homelessness on the streets. By breaking up camp and shutting people off in supportive housing and shelters, people become more isolated, healing from colonialism and keeping ties with kin becomes more difficult, and the drug poisoning crisis becomes more dangerous. The City makes it clear that committing these violences against unhoused people is a necessary means to upholding the interests of the public and property law.

Tent city residents’ responses to the displacement efforts of the City and Province show that what unhoused people need is housing. They need housing that isn’t just “better than being on the street.” Housing they can afford, which means housing that is not run under the private, for-profit rental market. Housing that is free from racist discrimination. Housing where they don’t have to live in fear of being evicted any day for any reason. Housing that allows them to be with their Indigenous kin. 

In the absence of adequate housing, camp residents like Tyrone are committed to continuing the tent city strategy in a new location. He said, “If we don’t get housed, we’re setting up a new tent city.”

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