Tent cities Save Lives. They Shouldn’t Have To.
Long before the dual public health emergencies of COVID-19 and the overdose crisis, tent cities have been a safe haven for the homeless. How did it come to this?
I park my bike and survey the park. Tents — nearly 400 of them, according to a recent count — are everywhere.
Some are immaculate, while others decay, garbage bags and tarps strewn above to deflect the rain. It’s early autumn, so while the grass beneath my feet is dry, the skies will quickly part. When they do, residents, some of whom have been without stable housing for years or decades, want to be prepared. I don’t blame them. When your only protection from the elements is a flimsy piece of plastic, Vancouver’s mild winters can feel a whole lot harsher.
I’m at the Kennedy-Trudeau homeless encampment (Camp K-T for short) for a meeting. I greet residents and volunteers sat near the tennis courts, who wave and share Chinese food, before slowly walking north. I’m cautious about avoiding tents — they are people’s homes, after all — and I stay vigilant as I cross the soccer field, careful not to tread on food waste, uncapped needles, or garbage. The refuse doesn’t bother me, but my stance isn’t universal: Neighbours in nearby Strathcona have watched the occupation grow, and while a few are empathetic, others loathe the perceived invasion. Their ire is why I’m here.
As camp liaison, my role is to mediate communication between K-T and housed residents of Strathcona. They live adjacent the park in eclectic row homes, apartment buildings, and collective dwellings, most of them pristine. Four out of five are renters, one in five is aged sixty-five or older, and one in two is a low-income earner.¹
A historically working-class region, Strathcona is more culturally diverse than most neighbourhoods. It hasn’t been immune to gentrification, though: Like every Vancouver borough, the last twenty years have brought with them an influx of wealth and Whiteness. Under normal circumstances these socioeconomic and racial disparities may be a point of contention. Now, though, a singular cause has united Strathcona residents: K-T has to go.