At 9am on Friday April 28th, one week before the 2017 BC election and two weeks after the release of the highest homeless count in Vancouver history, a dozen homeless people and a group of supporters took over a city owned empty lot, founding a new tent city. Dubbed the “10 Year Tent City” because this lot was also taken as a tent city in 2007 and while the government promised housing, the lot still stands empty and homelessness has boomed.
While residents and supporters clean, weed, build gravel pathways, and organize the empty lot into neat rows of tents and a common area, City workers and police amass across the street plotting a takedown and displacement of the camp. The question they are asking is whether they can take down the camp without a court order. At 4:30pm Friday the City of Vancouver issued a notice of trespassing, demanding the tent city disperse by 9am. This indicates that the City is considering displacing the tent city without a court injunction. Legal experts and tent city residents are demanding they do otherwise.
DJ Larkin was the lawyer with Pivot Legal Society who represented homeless people in the precedent setting BC Supreme Court case that found that Cities cannot displace homeless camps from public lands if they do not provide reasonable accommodations. Acting as a legal advocate for the new camp, Larkin argued, “The City is not the same as any other private land owner. Because this tent city is being established as a safe haven for people without housing, shelter or other safe options, the City has an obligation to act in accordance with the Constitutional rights of the inhabitants,” she said.
Larkin argued that the City cannot make a decision about the balance of public interest without a Court hearing. “Forcibly evicting people from this encampment in the absence of a court hearing leaves the residents no recourse and may violate their most important Constitutional rights to life and security of the person,” she said. “Now is a time to prioritize the rights of Vancouver’s vulnerable homeless population over the property interests of the City of Vancouver.”
Further complicating the question of public interest is that the 10 Year Tent City was established by a group of homeless women, who founded the camp as a safe space for women. Gena, who was camped in front of the Living Room on Powell Street for months, explained, “We decided to have women lead the tent city because it’s safer. When women are in charge it feels safer and more reliable. I feel trust with women in charge.” This experience of a safer community space is a contrast with her experience on the street, where she said, “On the street I feel put down by cops and let down by everybody.”
But women’s leadership of the 10 Year Tent City doesn’t make it a women-only space. In fact, as two women leaders explain, having men along with them is part of why they don’t want to stay in shelters. Justice said, “I lived at 58 W. Hastings Tent City with my boyfriend. They promised us housing but we didn’t get any. So we went to the only shelter where they allow couples, and now that’s going to move this week and we’re back on the streets.” She said being with her boyfriend is a matter of safety. “It’s hard enough being in a shelter or on the street as a woman. I feel safer with my boyfriend by my side.”
Sarah B is 6 months pregnant and was also living in a tent outside the Living Room. She says, “I’m pregnant so I could get housing but it’s all transitional housing, where the father of my baby is not allowed to stay with the mom and baby. I want my boyfriend to be there with me.” That’s also why she won’t stay in a shelter. But also, she says, “I’d rather stay in a tent than in a dirty SRO with abusive landlords or in transitional or supportive housing with all those rules rules rules…”
But it’s hard to be pregnant on the street, Sarah says. “I stayed in front of Living Room for months and the police and bylaw always harassed me. I told a City worker than I was pregnant and he said ‘not my problem’ and threw out my stuff, like they do with everyone.”
For these women, the 10 Year Tent City is safer and healthier than shelters, transitional housing, or sleeping on the street. “I feel like it’s safer here because the cops aren’t harassing us, and the City workers aren’t scooping up my stuff,” Sarah said. “Here there are people to watch out for us.” This watching-out is a something that rang true for Justice too; she said, “I already feel like this tent city is home. We’re all the same people – I feel supported and protected by people like me, in the same situation as me.”
Alliance Against Displacement (AAD) is supporting the 10 Year Tent City as a space of survival for these women and other homeless people languishing on the streets while the NDP and BC Liberals ignore them. Maria Wallstam, organizer with AAD and supporter of the camp’s leadership council, emphasized the need for the camp in the context of BC’s homelessness and housing crisis. “The Metro Vancouver homeless count found more than 70 temporary camps as well as thousands of homeless people. These camps are temporary places that homeless people put up to survive, and they are constantly attacked and displaced by bylaw officers and police,” she said. “AAD is helping by supporting homeless people against those violent forces of displacement; we’re on the side of building homeless people’s power against politicians who are giving up on homelessness, and trying to bury the issue. We are calling on the City of Vancouver to stand with the 10 Year Tent City demand for a Provincial social housing program to build 10,000 units of social housing every year and end, not normalize, homelessness.”
AAD is calling for supporters to rally at the camp at starting at 8:30am on Saturday April 29th to demonstrate support for homeless people, the 10 Year Tent City’s demand for the Provincial parties to pledge to build 10,000 units of social housing every year to end homelessness, and against the City’s attempt to smash the tent city and bury the issue of homelessness.
Besides the emergency rally, campers are also calling for ongoing support. To volunteer for a support shift, contact firstname.lastname@example.org