The chair of the Vancouver park board has called the Coalition of Progressive Electors’ proposal of a permanent tent city “irresponsible”.
“I don’t think that a permanent tent city is a viable option, not only for the folks who would be living there but also for the folks that might be using that park space,” Aaron Jasper told the Georgia Straight by phone. “We’re supposed to make sure that our parks are safe and inclusive for everybody, whether they are housed or not.”
The Vision Vancouver park commissioner was responding to an idea put forth by COPE park-board candidates Ezra Bloom and Imtiaz Popat on October 7, as they spoke out in support of homeless campers who were fighting the City of Vancouver’s bid for an injunction to remove them from Oppenheimer Park.
Bloom told the Straight that Vancouver is “one of the most incredibly unaffordable cities in the world”. He asserted that the alternatives to living at the Oppenheimer tent city reinforce the criminalization of poverty and homelessness and put people’s health and safety at risk.
“We’re forcing people into prisonlike shelter systems and death-trap SROs, and essentially saying someone has to go be supervised,” Bloom said by phone. “You know, police pick people up and take them to shelters and make sure they stay there.”
So far, COPE hasn’t suggested any sites for a permanent tent city, but the party wants the park board to consider the idea. Bloom said he could envision tent cities being established in more than one park in Vancouver.
Government-sanctioned tent cities have been set up in Seattle and Portland, he noted. Bloom maintained that a long-term encampment in Vancouver would require sanitation and sewage infrastructure as well as harm-reduction and mental-health services on site.
“In this city, there’s clearly a need for a tent city and for infrastructure for that, because people can’t find safe shelters, they can’t find safe housing, and it’s a system that’s failing people,” Bloom said.
Shortly after the Oppenheimer Park tent city went up in mid-July, the City of Vancouver served campers with an eviction notice. On September 23, the city announced it had filed for an injunction. The case entered the B.C. Supreme Court on September 29.
The Oppenheimer tent city is just the latest in a long line of homeless encampments in Vancouver. In recent memory, there was the Occupy Vancouver settlement outside the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2011, the Olympic tent village at 58 West Hastings Street in 2010, and the tent city at Victory Square in 2003.
Michael Wiebe, a park-board candidate with the Green Party of Vancouver, told the Straight that he has heard from homeless people that they don’t want to go to filthy and unsafe shelters and single-room-occupancy hotels. He argued that a better transitional housing solution is needed.
“I don’t think that a tent city is what these people want in the long term,” Wiebe said by phone. “I don’t think people want to be living in tents.”
Wiebe suggested that the city look at building temporary housing on public land out of recycled and surplus materials. These tiny homes could come with a time limit on residency, ensuring they’re used only for transition purposes.
“They can build little shelters, and they can use that as a temporary tool,” Wiebe said. “They can have an address at that park, so they can receive mail. They can use a computer there that can give them Internet access. So there are much better solutions than creating a tent city.”
According to Non-Partisan Association park-board commissioner Melissa De Genova, who is running for city council, a permanent tent city isn’t the way to go. She told the Straight that parks are recreational spaces for the “whole community”.
“I think that it’s unfortunate that it’s come to this,” De Genova said by phone. “Had we had true, open, transparent public consultation, and had [Mayor] Gregor Robertson not promised to end homelessness by 2015, the situation would not have been inflamed to this.”
De Genova blamed a “lack of leadership” by Vision’s elected politicians for the dearth of better options available to homeless people in the city.
“We see no housing options, and we see people being told where to go, instead of asked what they want,” De Genova said. “I think that we have to start to think about how we are consulting with the public—the people down in Oppenheimer Park and the people that need to be a part of the solution, which is the community.”