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Tents at the encampment in Strathcona Park in Vancouver wait to be cleared as residents are moved out in preparation for the camp's closure.

Jesse Winter/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver has begun closing a major homeless encampment for the third time in less than a year.

On Thursday, outreach workers and staff from BC Housing began the process of offering indoor housing to people living at the Strathcona Park tent encampment. It’s believed to be the largest tent city in Canada.

The push follows a Vancouver Parks Board announcement earlier this spring that campers would have until April 30 to move out.

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“It’s not ideal in our society to have people sleeping in tents outdoors,” said Stephanie Allen, BC Housing’s associate vice-president, “but the complexity of this is huge.”

Earlier this month the province announced the purchase of three more hotels to help house people experiencing homelessness, adding the Holiday Inn, Ramada and the Patricia hotels in the city’s downtown to its supply of housing. Shelter spaces are also on the table if they’re needed, Ms. Allen said.

Ms. Allen said BC Housing has more than 200 people registered for spaces so far, and ultimately hopes to house somewhere between 250 and 300 people.

Staff from B.C. Housing help Tyler Hall get on a registration list for indoor housing so he can leave the Strathcona Park homeless encampment in Vancouver, where he's been living since last fall. Hall says he doesn't trust housing providers, who have frequently overlooked him or kicked him out.

Chrissy Brett hugs her boyfriend Kris Janelle. Janelle says he won't take any of the housing offered by the provincial government because campers are only allowed to bring two tote boxes worth of belongings, which means most of his things would be lost.

Jesse McKenzie works on bicycle parts while B.C. Housing staff hold a ceremonial circle on the first day of efforts to clear campers. McKenzie says he doesn't trust the government to provide stable housing, so he'll move to another camping area somewhere in the city after the Strathcona Park encampment is shut down.

Jesse Winter/The Globe and Mail

It’s the second major effort to shift people experiencing homelessness from outdoor to indoor spaces in a year, and the third time a homeless encampment has been closed since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Activists say the repetition is indicative of a rinse-and-repeat approach by authorities to seemingly intractable homelessness in Vancouver that simply isn’t working.

“It just feels like the same old recycling of the same thing,” said Fiona York, a volunteer advocate with the camp.

“When it comes right down to it, the housing that’s offered is not even truly housing in a lot of cases,” Ms. York said, adding that clients she works with have had jail cells larger than some of the single-room occupancy units being offered.

Last May, Shane Simpson, B.C.’s Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, issued a public safety order to shut down a two-year-long encampment at Oppenheimer Park over fears that COVID-19 would spread rapidly through the crowded park.

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During that eviction, outreach staff worked to move people into hotel rooms, SRO units and emergency shelters. More than 260 people were moved indoors, the majority of whom are still housed, according to BC Housing.

But almost immediately after that eviction, a new encampment sprang up in an empty industrial lot on federal property on the city’s waterfront near Crab Park. It lasted barely a month before the Vancouver Port Authority got a court injunction to force the camp’s closing, displacing residents again. Dozens of people, mostly activists, were arrested while protesting the closing.

Vancouver police arrest activists protesting the closure of the Crab Park homeless encampment near the Port of Vancouver in June, 2020.

Jesse Winter/The Globe and Mail

As of March, 2020, there were an estimated 2,095 people experiencing homelessness in Vancouver, with 547 sleeping in parks or on the street, according to the annual one-day homelessness count. That count was not conducted in 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Ms. Allen said she expects the figure is now higher.

A recent study of similar tent encampments south of the border found that several U.S. cities have spent millions of dollars to shut down encampments and move people out, with little to show for it. The majority are simply displaced, and set up a new encampment somewhere else.

Ms. Allen said that BC Housing staff are aware of the U.S. study, and are working to learn what they can from it, and from the past few years of tackling the problem in Vancouver.

She called the experience with the Oppenheimer, Crab Park and Strathcona encampments a “learning journey,” and said she understands the frustration of campers and activists.

“It’s fair to say [the latest housing push] is great, but it’s not good enough,” Ms. Allen said. “I don’t think there is one easy answer. It’s critical that we as institutions take the time to listen to people’s voices on this.”

In photos: Peter Russell moves from Strathcona Park to his new home

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