It is obvious now the cheers that erupted when Vancouver’s longest running tent city was dismantled were wildly premature. Fearing a COVID-19 outbreak would take hold in the overcrowded inner-city camp, the provincial government in April acquired emergency housing in hotels for homeless people living there and cleared the site.
Many camp residents embraced the offer of a clean room. Some refused and relocated outdoors. The camp shifted, first to some empty Port of Vancouver land, and when a court order quickly shut it down, finally landed in Strathcona Park. With each move, it grew.
Today there are about 150 tents Strathcona Park, roughly double the number there were in Oppenheimer Park. How many inhabitants are truly homeless is anyone’s guess. Some of the tents were erected by activists with homes. Others belong to people living in single room occupancy hotels, the worst of which are noisy, bug-infested and so hot that some residents prefer to spend summer outside.
There is already an air of permanence to the camp; the city has installed porta-potties, fresh drinking water and handwashing stations. Park rangers drop by a few times daily. The area is reasonably clean, but these are early days.
Strathcona residents are largely sympathetic to homeless people, but are understandably unhappy about losing a large chunk of park space. They fear the same violence and social disorder that cropped up at Oppenheimer is inevitable; there has already been a small fire and there appears to be a bike chop shop on site. There are cries for the city to sanction a permanent tent city location – elsewhere, of course.
So how exactly did the province’s efforts to shut down a tent city and house homeless people backfire so badly? The city and provincial officials have been out-manoeuvered and out-organized by anti-poverty activists who seized a COVID-19 opportunity when they saw it.
The pandemic raised fears the Oppenheimer tent city would turn into a reservoir of disease that could overwhelm the health system. The activists know that’s why the government cleared the camp and purchased hotels for social housing. They understand this is the moment to highlight society’s failure to solve homelessness, even if their end goals seem to differ. Some are calling for permanent housing – others prefer the idea of a permanent, free-wheeling tent city.
The sorry truth is, even with the addition of 600 units of temporary modular housing and, more recently, the purchase of three downtown hotels, there are still more homeless people than homes. Successions of governments at all levels have allowed this crisis to grow. They’ve failed to build enough social housing. Failed to provide adequate mental health services. Failed to fund enough drug rehabilitation programs for those who want to quit and provide a safe drug supply for those who can’t.
So, now here we are with the largest homeless camp the city has ever seen and another stressed-out neighbourhood. Legally, the new tent city may prove more difficult to dismantle – it’s a large park and the tents are well spaced so the pandemic may not wash as a valid reason. And unless housing is available for everyone who is homeless, it is unlikely the courts would grant an injunction.
Solving problems associated with homelessness is a huge challenge. We can start with housing, but that alone is not nearly enough. Many of the people living in the hotels and park are drug users. Many are mentally ill. Some are both. It takes money – and lots of it – to provide decent housing and supports for this segment of society.
But to cave to demands for a permanent tent city is an American-style admission of defeat. The park board seems resigned to tent cities in parks and is considering a bylaw seeking to control locations. City council has resisted sanctioning a permanent spot, instead offering up land for new social housing. The province has stepped up with money for temporary modular housing and purchases of hotels.
It will be tough to keep neighbourhoods onside if more parks are rendered unusable for recreation. There is only one palatable solution; the provincial government must stay the course and keep adding decent, affordable housing. It won’t be cheap or easy. Catchup never is.
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