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Strathcona Park tent city: nightmare, or refuge?

Nightmare or refuge?

One evening this August, Peter Portuondo was stabbed in the arm when he attempted to block a man who was not welcome at the Strathcona Park  tent city in Vancouver’s east side. 

“There’s been endless  little campfires in the tents and endless fights and pepper spray every  day,” Portuondo said. “It’s too many gangs and too close for all the…  street people to gather to be calm.”

Claudette Abraham described the tent city a  different way — as a refuge after being evicted from supportive housing  run by a non-profit housing provider.

“There’s over 100 of us that know each  other and help each other, like if somebody’s in trouble, if someone  needs extra blankets,” she said. “I do some cooking at the camp and  everyone looks forward to my bannock.”

Dubbed “Camp Kennedy  Trudeau,” after Vancouver’s mayor and the prime minister, the tent city  at Strathcona Park, about two kilometres from the Downtown Eastside, has  now been in place for four months and is home to 200 people, according  to the City of Vancouver.

Supporters say the camp is needed to provide a safe place for homeless people who would be in more danger living on their own.

But critics say the camp has become too  large, and organizers are failing to keep residents safe. In addition to  the ongoing violence, the camp will have to continue to deal with the  overdose crisis and COVID-19 as winter arrives.

While the city has earmarked $30 million to buy or lease hotels and single-room occupancies to house people who are homeless, and the federal government has promised another $51 million, it could take months for those options to be in place. 

Meanwhile, there is no immediate plan to  create smaller alternative tent city sites with more services, or to try  other options like creating a tiny home village.

The main spokespeople for the camp are  Chrissy Brett and Fiona York, who also provided support to a previous  camp at Oppenheimer Park that lasted for two years. 

They’re joined by nearly 200 volunteers who  help with everything from sourcing food and water, to doing laundry, to  being present at the camp’s central hub where a symbolic sacred fire  burns. 

Through GoFundMe fundraisers, organizers  have raised nearly $40,000 for medical supplies, to do residents’  laundry and to purchase a shower trailer.

As COVID-19 led to visitor restrictions at  SROs and the closure of some drop-in spaces, homelessness rose across  the city. Brett and York say tent cities are needed for those who’d be  in more danger living by themselves.

But at both the Oppenheimer and Strathcona  camps, there have been disturbing crimes perpetrated against camp  residents, including a killing, a horrific sexual assault, multiple stabbings and physical assaults. 

On Sept. 23, Carl Sinclair was seriously assaulted and left lying on the ground in Strathcona Park for 12 hours before someone called 911. His leg has since been amputated as a result of the attack.

On Oct. 16, a man was found with serious stab wounds at Raymur Avenue and Venables Street near the park; police said they  believed he had been stabbed in his tent, and it was eight hours before  anyone called for help.

On Oct. 17, a Strathcona neighbourhood  resident who has been one of the tent city’s most vocal critics was hit  on the head with a pipe near her home after walking past the park. Katie  Lewis, the vice-president of the Strathcona Residents’ Association, was  left with a concussion and 13 stitches. She told the Vancouver Sun she believed she was targeted. 

But speaking to The Tyee on  Oct. 20, Lewis said she was unsure if that was the case. “I know that  someone followed me home, but it could have been anyone from the  neighbourhood,” she said.

Asked about the violent incidents at the  park, spokesperson York said similar incidents happen in the Downtown  Eastside all the time but don’t receive the same kind of scrutiny. She  called on the city to provide water, showers and other amenities: right  now, the park bathrooms that campers rely on are closed at dusk, and  getting enough water is also a challenge.

But critics say the ongoing violence shows that things are not OK at the tent city.

“Some of these sorts of things can happen  on the street from time to time, but they’re not concentrated like  this,” said Karen Ward, a Downtown Eastside resident and community  advocate who has been involved in setting up several previous tent  cities. Ward also works with the City of Vancouver as a drug policy  advisor.

“Somebody’s got eyes all the time,” Ward  said, describing how violent incidents are tracked in the Downtown  Eastside. “If it’s like, ‘Oh, no one saw that happen,’ then either no  one’s taking any responsibility at all, or they want you to be hurt.”

Camp leaders say they have a good  relationship with members of the Strathcona Residents’ Association when  they meet with them. But publicly, that relationship has soured.

Speaking to city council on Oct. 8, Lewis  said she was skeptical about several GoFundMe campaigns camp organizers  have set up to pay for laundry, a shower trailer and medical supplies.  Lewis accused camp organizers of profiting from poverty.

“Where is this money going? I have a guess,  and let me tell you there is no shower trailer sitting there,” Lewis  said. “There is no laundry.”

York said camp organizers are raising money  for a shower trailer that costs $25,000. The trailer is not at the site  yet because they haven’t raised all the money required to buy it, York  said. (A GoFundMe for the shower trailer had raised $17,363 by this week.)

The fund for laundry, which has raised $10,770 so far, is so that volunteers can collect and wash laundry from  tent city residents every week. Another $11,990 has been raised for a  “health and wellness” fund, exceeding its $5,000 goal, according to GoFundMe page.

York said the money raised for the health  and wellness fund has been spent equipping a medic tent with harm  reduction supplies and basic first aid items like Band-Aids, gauze and  disinfectant. 

Another GoFundMe fundraiser begun in March raised $35,000 to help the Downtown Eastside respond to COVID-19. York said around  half of that funding has gone to a food security and community kitchen  program in the Downtown Eastside and has also funded the distribution of  hygiene and sanitation supplies.

York said camp organizers are accountable  to donors and have been tracking donations through a spreadsheet. But  Ward said that’s not good enough.

“There’s no accountability. Are they a non-profit? Do they submit annual financial reports, anything like that?” Ward asked.

Nicole Luongo is one of the volunteers who  support the camp, doing jobs like patrolling for overdoses. Luongo has  experienced both homelessness and addiction in the Downtown Eastside and  said the violence that happens at the camp is no worse than what  happens regularly in that neighbourhood.

The only real long-term solutions for the violence are reducing poverty and legalizing drugs, Luongo said.

“Living in poverty isn’t safe, right? So  for the average person, no, it’s not safe. And for someone who is  acutely traumatized, which many of the residents are, it’s also not  safe, but it’s probably more safe than trying to survive alone,” Luongo  said.

The city prefers the option of offering  supportive housing units to camp residents. But many tent city residents  haven’t had good experiences living at supportive housing buildings run  by non-profit providers, Luongo said, and have found a stronger sense  of community and control over their own lives at the tent city.

Luongo said some residents would be open to  moving to another site, such as Crab Park on the waterfront near  Gastown. But an alternate site would have to be run by residents, not  the city or a housing provider, she said.

“I know the idea of a sanctioned encampment  had been tossed around, and I think the problem with that is going to  be the same problem we see in supported housing, where folks who have  built alliances — whether that be through a gang or just their own  day-to-day life — are separated,” Luongo said.

“And there’s very little thought that’s gone into who would live best with whom.”

But Portuondo said the existing camp rules aren’t preventing violent attacks.

“This thing is secured by citizens, and if  they say, ‘Hey you can’t come back in,’ the guy’s like ‘Yeah, I’m gonna  fucking kill you tonight, I’m going to fucking knock you out,’” he said.

“There’s no cops protecting, there’s no  government that says, ‘Yeah we’re going to regulate who comes in and out  of here at least so the citizens trying to help don’t get threatened.’  They get threatened all the time.”

Ward was involved in organizing a tent city  in a vacant lot at 58 W. Hastings St. in 2016 that lasted around six  months. She said there weren’t the same problems with violence because  the site was smaller and because it was fenced with just one access  point, meaning organizers could control who could come in.

Organizers also covered the fence with  tarps, so no one could take photos of people who live on the street and  have little privacy, Ward said. 

Meanwhile, tent cities located on large  open sites at Oppenheimer Park and Strathcona Park have no way to  control the number of people living there or who goes in or out.

Ward said she’s frustrated by what appeared to be an inability of both the camp leadership and the city to plan for the future.

“What are your solutions?” Ward demanded. “The solution appears to be, live indefinitely in the park.”



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