'Everyone has a right to exist': Life inside Vancouver's Strathcona Park tent city
VANCOUVER -- Since a homeless encampment formed in Strathcona Park in June, neighbours have witnessed a staggering increase in dangerous incidents. Break-ins, weapons offences and even children being threatened are all now a way of life in the neighbourhood. But as job losses rise with the COVID-19 pandemic and housing affordability in Vancouver continues to be a challenge, the tent city grows. Almost 400 people call it home. CTV News Vancouver spoke to some of the residents to look at life inside the encampment.
Angela Peterkin moved into the camp in July. Prior to coming to Strathcona Park, the 29-year-old had a run of bad luck. A few months ago, her roommate moved out to live with a boyfriend, leaving Angela to either find a place of her own.
“About seven years ago I was involved in the justice system,” Peterkin said. “I’ve moved on from that life now, but because of it I didn’t really have any rental references.”
Having nowhere permanent to live, she saw her situation start to spiral.
“Once I lost my place, I had to stop working,” she said. “I was couch-surfing and became very unreliable.”
She applied for welfare, but couldn’t make enough money to get a place to live, so she came to the tent city in Strathcona for shelter. She sleeps inside a tent with one other person. Tarps pinned to the top of other nearby tents form a covered, communal space to have meals.
Peterkin is applying for jobs, but her situation makes it difficult.
“I don’t have money to pay for my phone bill so I go hand out resumes and then next you know my minutes are up and these guys are probably calling,” she said. “Then not being able to have clean clothes and good hygiene obviously reflects the job interview phase of things so i just feel like I’m stuck in a rut here.”
Hygiene is a challenge. Everyone in the camp shares a toilet block where there is a makeshift shower. A tarp has been set up in one of the stalls to create shower walls, and there’s a bucket on the floor to fill with hot water. But Peterson says the bathrooms with hot water are closed from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. daily.
“You don’t have hot water to wash your hands during the night, which I think is ridiculous, like COVID and stuff,” she said.
Camp leaders try to keep some sort of routine. Volunteer nurses come to visit twice a day. There’s also a volunteer laundry service and transportation team, as well as daily food donations.
Sometimes there can be warm food, but it’s first-come, first-served. Peterkin says there is a lot of bread.
Doug Ehret is a former resident of the tent city. He lost his plumbing job when the pandemic hit and he too experienced a spiraling situation. He was living with a roommate who never got permission from the landlord to have another person in the unit. Soon, he was kicked out and found himself wandering Main Street with nothing but a blanket over his shoulders. He was taken in by the homeless community and first went to live in Crab Park, then Strathcona when the tent city residents moved.
Living in an encampment gave Ehret a sense of community.
“I felt safer than on the streets,” he said. ”If I was having a rough day I had 50 people I could go to and cry on their shoulder if I needed.”
The recent heavy rain was enough for Ehret to try and make a change.
“I did the backstroke across my tent the following morning and I wanted to go back to work and I figured I can’t do this from a tent,” he said. “I wrung out my hoodie, borrowed a pair of track pants, threw on my wet runners and thought ‘this sucks’ and I went and spent a couple of nights in a shelter and then transitioned into the SRO.”
He now lives in public housing on East Pender, but says he doesn’t feel safe.
“I’m considering wearing a stab-proof vest at night because there are people that chase people with machetes for no reason,” Ehret said.
Although he is about to start working again and is sheltered, Ehret says he’s still “one paycheck away from being back in a tent.”
There are now 397 tents in the encampment and as the numbers continue to rise, so too does crime in the area. Neighbours this week rallied in the streets calling for more to be done to keep everyone safe.
Ehret asks that people remember that “everyone has a right to exist.”
“We are not things that go bump in the night,” he said. “We all belong somewhere and we belong to somebody. Just because we live in a tent doesn’t make us less valuable.”