EDITOR’S NOTE: Scroll down, or click here, to see a recent history of tent cities across the region.
Yet another tent city has come and gone in the Lower Mainland, following a municipal government’s effort to evict homeless people living in a public place.
Most recently, a B.C. Supreme Court judge granted the City of Vancouver’s request last week to get rid of about 17 people living in an empty lot at 58 West Hastings Street.
The group had until Thursday to leave. Some simply moved to Thornton Park near Main Street Station, where police and park rangers were dismantling tents and arresting those not co-operating Friday.
The West Hastings’ camp was home for close to 80 people at one point, forming back in July.
It was one in a string of encampments across the region during the last five years that has highlighted the homeless population’s struggle to find a safe place to sleep.
“The shelters are full, we are in the middle of a housing crisis, and the city is moving in the wrong decision by failing to support people who find reasonably safe alternatives, resulting in their continued displacement,” said DJ Larkin, lawyer with the Pivot Legal Society, who represented the Hastings campers in court.
The order to leave hit like “another punch in the stomach,” said campers Stacy Dubois and Ilona Schild.
“I don’t know if anyone really cares too much of what happens to us,” Schild said. “I’ve heard people call us throwaway people… and alley people, and I don’t know how the judge looks at us really – it’s hard to say.”
DJ Larkin of Pivot Legal Society, represented those staying at the encampment on West Hastings Street, who now have one week to leave: pic.twitter.com/iqsIEVOsw7
— Ashley Wadhwani (@ashwadhwani) November 17, 2016
Housing need causes tension between cities, province
The rise in homeless camps has prompted plenty of finger-pointing.
Advocates and campers have called on municipalities to build more shelters, while municipalities say the provincial government needs to provide the cash.
In the West Hastings case, Justice Loryl Russell said Vancouver has to do its best to find adequate housing for those being displaced, but Larkin said the BC Housing list for priority housing is long, and when homeless people move around, it’s hard to get them connected with resources.
“I don’t blame cities for their frustration at the province right now. The province has not been properly funding housing social and affordable housing in a very long time – I am also furious with the province,” Larkin said.
In 2015, a judge ruled that a group of campers could no longer live at a public park in Abbotsford, but they could sleep there overnight if there weren’t enough shelter spaces available.
In Victoria, campers squatted on the courthouse lawn for nearly a year, claiming they had nowhere else for them to go, before the city was granted an injunction to have them removed.
City bylaw officers and RCMP disagreed over who would handle safety issues, said Cailtin Shane, Pivot’s articling student.
“Housing is a provincial issue, but then ground-level stuff was between campers and city staff,” Shane said. “There was strange tension because it was provincial land.”
The City of Maple Ridge continues to look for adequate shelter options for its residents following a tent city in 2015, while some people are still living at a temporary shelter in a former SleepShop store.
Municipal and provincial officials found a proposed site for a new $5-million 60-unit facility in the Quality Inn, but Housing Minister Rich Coleman withdrew the proposal months later over concerns from local MLAs over the location.
Mayor Nicole Read questioned why the city was responsible for consulting with residents, when the province can just pull the plug.
In the meantime, a pregnant woman has been attacked at the temporary shelter, while other residents have had full pop cans thrown at them, according to a letter issued by the city.
And in April, two men in a van tried to run over a resident of the shelter; while in a separate incident, someone jumped out of a vehicle and beat a resident with a pipe in a nearby parking lot.
Cities can ‘end the price squeeze’: Premier
Still, there’s a lot cities can do on the ground, said Maria Wallstam of the Carnegie Community Action Project, based in the Downtown Eastside.
“Lots of people are displaced to the street because they lose their housing and their rents go up,” she said. “The city can actually do a lot to stop that.”
Meanwhile, as paramedics dealt with a record number of overdose-related 911 calls this week, Wallstam said encampments mean homeless people are safe together rather than alone in back allies where they could overdose and die.
B.C. had the highest number of opioid overdose related 911 calls ever last week. BCEHS responded to 494 suspected overdose/poisoning events: pic.twitter.com/IValD6kk7Q
— Ashley Wadhwani (@ashwadhwani) November 25, 2016
Last Tuesday, Premier Christy Clark and Minister Coleman announced funding to create almost 2,900 affordable housing units in B.C. – half of those to be constructed in the Lower Mainland in the next two years.
Clark was asked how municipalities should deal with homeless camps while waiting for those new units to be built.
“The private sector can build a lot more housing a lot more cheaply, and end the price squeeze,” she said. “Municipalities need to put more supply on the market, they need to approve more housing, they need to approve more density.”
National strategy released
Also this week, the federal government released an overview of its national housing strategy, including results from surveys.
B.C. residents reported that housing for low-income people and groups with distinct housing needs is their biggest concern. How this data will actually be implemented won’t be revealed until 2017, when a more comprehensive report is to be released.
“Over the coming months, priority will be placed on continuing and completing the consultations with national indigenous organizations on how to best meet the housing needs of Indigenous Canadians wherever they may live,” the report said.
UBC professor Penelope Gurstein, who studies affordable and public housing, said she is optimistic about the new report.
She said it will address the unevenness of housing across provinces and municipalities.
“Before the 1990s, the federal government [was] more involved in housing,” Gurstein said. But then they began offloading the job to provinces, she added, who began offloading to municipalities.
Looking at housing on a national scale could unite provinces in their efforts to combat homelessness, she said.
“People are camping out for some reason. They want people to understand this is critical.”
Homeless mobility reflects struggles to find resources
Schild and Dubois are prime examples of why adequate housing is needed.
The couple became homeless five years ago, when their rundown rented home on 135A street in Surrey was shut down.
The two tried living on the streets for a few months, but struggled to find a safe place to sleep and, through WorkBC, a good place to work
So they looked to Vancouver.
The two set up their tent at skateboard parks, the library and church doors, staying till early morning when someone kicked them off the property.
They’ve stayed at a lot of shelters, describing them “as a dead end street,” with bed bugs and not enough space to allow them to stay together, so they prefer to battle through the wet and cold.
Noted Shane, the articling student, in a blog post: “Emergency shelters, they say, fail to address the root causes of homelessness and oftentimes provide homeless individuals with less security and stability than a fixed encampment.”
Schild said they’re not “holding their breath” for the city to find them a place to stay.
“It’s hard to find jobs, it’s hard to find housing the way we are in our situation. We can’t haul around our stuff to job interviews and say this is my home right here, that’s my address,” Schild said.
“Even looking for housing – same thing.”
With files from The Canadian Press and Black Press.