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'I’d be lost': Homeless people fight port authority for right to remain by Vancouver Park

Crab Park camper Ryan says that if the tent city is removed: “I’d be lost, lonely, looking for my friends, worrying. No cell phone, no communications. Me and my dog would be walking the streets, all the shelters will be full."
Photo: Red Braid Alliance for Decolonial Socialism

Downtown Eastside advocates gathered in the west parking lot by Crab Park yesterday to speak about the Port of Vancouver's injunction to have the tent city's campers removed. 

Our Homes Cant Wait organized the conference with members of the Downtown Eastside community to protest the port's decision to remove the parking lot's current campers. 

Speakers included Don Larsen, Founder and President, Crab Water for Life Society; Chrissy Brett, tent city liaison; Veronica Butler, Elder and head fire keeper; and Mark, CRAB Park Resident.

Today, members of the growing tent city met in court to fight the port's injunction to have them removed from the parking lot adjacent to the park. The port cites upcoming contracts for container storage in the lot as one of the reasons it filed the application with the B.C. Supreme Court. 

"The issue for me is beyond the housing issue — my issue is the four acre parking lot. The present Vancouver Park Board and previous board voted unanimously for the parking lot to become public park as part of Crab Park, and the mayor and council also voted unanimously fairly recently for that four acres to become part of Crab Park,” says Don Larsen, President and founder of Crab Water for Life Society.

“My concern with what the port is planning is fairly negative — they want to put containers there and that’s right beside the bird marsh and not far from the children’s play area. There was an incident five years ago on the other side of Crab Park at the foot of Main Street, where 12 people were sent to hospital due to lung damage from a chlorine container that caught fire. That’s always a reality and the danger of putting containers in public park and not far from a children’s play area.” 

Crab Park tent city residents and supporters are fighting against displacement with the support of two law-union lawyers, Amandeep Singh and Michelle Silongan.

The Supreme Court justice presiding over the case is Chief Justice Christopher Hinckson. Hinckson originally refused to grant the Province of British Columbia a displacement injunction against “Super InTent City” on Victoria’s courthouse lawn. Although he later granted the injunction, he did so only on the condition that the Province open new housing for the tent city occupants. 

In his first decision, Hinkson ruled that homeless campers could stay despite concerns because it was a greater burden for them to be on the streets than in the camp and because they had nowhere else to go.

In his final ruling, Hinkson noted that the nature of tent city had changed in recent months. He quoted a witness who had described himself as being homeless in Victoria for many years. The man said the residents of tent city were initially “local individuals whom I recognized from my time living on the streets.” But he now doesn’t recognize most of the residents and he believes many have come from other communities specifically to live at tent city.

The witness said he has chosen not to stay at tent city “because there were too many strangers with mental-health issues and drug addictions there. Many of my homeless friends have left the courthouse encampment.”

Danielle Jang, Media Relations Advisor for the Port of Vancouver, tells Vancouver Is Awesome in an email that the encampment in the parking lot is within port authority jurisdiction. She says that the port authority took legal action after it asked the campers to vacate the lot and they refused. She adds that the campers were given a deadline to move by, but they did not leave. 

"As this deadline has passed, we are taking steps toward legal action in response to their refusal to vacate."

Back in April, the B.C. government unveiled a plan to move close to 700 homeless people from camps in Vancouver and Victoria into hotels, motels and community centres. Under the Emergency Program Act, Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth ordered that all residents of Oppenheimer Tent City evacuate the park by noon on May 9. This order was said to promote health and safety of residents, visitors, health workers, and support workers from COVID-19.

However, not all of the former Oppenheimer campers felt that the move served their best interests. A few of them state that many homeless people have been negatively affected by the move, while others say they were bumped off the housing list.

Tent city liaison Chrissy Brett tells V.I.A. in a phone call that the tent city near Crab Park is one of the few places homeless people can safely go without danger of daily street sweeps destroying or removing their belongings or being moved along each day and having to carry all their belongings. 

Estimates vary, but the tent city has grown substantially since it first emerged in the parking lot. According to RBADS, there are currently 82 tents and 100 residents in the encampment. They add that the, "tent city promotes safe distancing, fresh air and hygiene. Community donations and meals mean that residents don't have to line up twice a day for food. Outreach workers can provide services to a centralized location." 

Crab Park camper Sunny was living in Oppenheimer Park off and on for years, but says he wasn't there at the time that hotel rooms were being offered and found himself without a place to go after the park closed. He had spent time in shelters but found them too crowded, with little room to spread out especially during COVID. He had been visiting Crab Park to do his morning exercises, and someone told him to come to join the tent city.

Sunny says, "I love being here. My family stops by. It has connected me with my faith and made it stronger. Everyone's organized, friendly and peaceful. Somewhere else, you have to be on the lookout all the time. Here, it's a family affair. It feels great — love and care. Couldn't be a better place than here to set up.”

Aside from having a problematic "no guest policy," Brett says that many people with pets face issues with BC Housing's temporary accommodations. For example, Crab Park camper Ryan was offered a hotel room after Oppenheimer Park but wasn't allowed to bring his small dog, smoke in his room or have guests. Many of his friends from Oppenheimer Park didn't get housing at all. He says that, "Shelters were unhealthy. I'm too vulnerable. I need to keep my mental health and normalcy. On the street, no one knows your name or stuff about you. Here, I have food, communication, friendship, relationships, understanding, and connection to culture. This is helping me heal as a person."

Ryan says that if the tent city is removed, “I’d be lost, lonely, looking for my friends, worrying. No cell phone, no communications. Me and my dog would be walking the streets, all the shelters will be full. My dog will get sick, I will get sick. There are no resources. This place is needed."

Brett adds that the tent city isn't taking up space that the port is currently using, and that it gives campers a vital sense of community and safety. She notes that the COVID-19 no guest policy ignores what she calls the "nuclear street family" - a few people that may or may not include family members but become an individual's family. 

"And they are no less family because they aren't related," she remarks. 

With this in mind, Brett says the housing project has been a success for many former Oppenheimer campers. She speaks of three young brothers that were moved into the same floor of an SRO: "They would be separated in the city, and it warms my heart that they can be together. I think that is awesome." 

Brett says that the "no guest policy" can prove fatal in some circumstances, however. While there are supposed to be daily wellness checks, she wonders if that is enough. She says that the number of overdoses in SROs is testament to the fact that isolation is dangerous, and adds that tent cities allow people to look out for one another: "Tents are not thick, you can hear if someone is in trouble."

Elder and head fire-keeper Veronica Butler helped fight for the establishment of Crab Park in 1984. “I know trees here. Singapore donated trees, Japan gave trees. That little marsh gives migrating birds somewhere to rest. Will we let this parking lot turn into tractor trailers and containers block out the view that we could have? This to me is Crab Park. When I was asked to start this fire, this is a place to have connection with land, with our ancestors.”

“This tent city is a place for people without energy to take their belongings without fear of it being stolen This is the struggle. If you have spent one night on the street, you are my neighbour. And I worry about you sleeping on the sidewalk. It's not just a Crab Park issue, it's an Indigenous issue. It's clearly not just here, but out in Hastings that it is mainly Indigenous people not getting housed and on reserves being under housed.”

Finally, Brett states that, “The Ports took over this land before federation. We have support from local First Nations people and are in discussion with the local elected and grassroots First Nations. Living on this land does not pose a danger to residents or the public. And we will ensure to set up homes in what we believe to be the safest way in unsafe and unsanitary conditions of being a displaced Indigenous person or homeless Canadian."

Court has been adjourned until Tuesday, June 9, at 10:30 a.m. when tent city defendants will finish presenting their evidence. 

- With files from Sarah Petrescu / Times Colonist.