Pleas for 'Bonnie Henry of homelessness' to resolve Strathcona encampment
VANCOUVER -- On the same day some homeless residents urged government to come up with long-term housing rather than letting them camp indefinitely, nearby residents of the Strathcona Park tent city pleaded for the province to appoint a "Bonnie Henry of homelessness" to resolve the complex issue.
An encampment has been growing at the East Vancouver park for weeks, ballooning to nearly 200 tents with up to twice as many people putting down stakes and interfering with neighbours' use of the park.
Campers called a press conference on Tuesday to make it clear they didn’t want to be there, urging the Vancouver Park Board to advocate for permanent housing for them rather than pushing changes to a bylaw that could lead to indefinite camping or a permanent camp site.
"If you pick a designated place for us to camp, you're pretty much enabling a bunch of people to stay homeless,” said a camper named Angela. “There’s not any type of support to obtain housing, that's just support to stay in the exact same position we're in right now."
The reference to the province’s chief provincial health officer, who’s widely admired for her handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, came from the Strathcona Residents’ Association’s president.
"We, as a residents association, are calling for the provincial government to step up and actively and publicly address this problem," said Dan Jackson. "Just like they addressed the problem with COVID so well that we're the envy of the world, I look forward to sort of a 'Bonnie Henry of homelessness' who can start publicly addressing this problem and work with the city, the feds, with housing agencies, the park board, to put short-term solutions and long-term solutions on the table so we can sort them out and come up with stuff that works and finally fix this – or send us in the direction of finally fixing and managing it."
His comments came as Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction Shane Simpson revealed he’d met with the group, their local MLA and Vancouver police this week.
"We’re engaged with people at Strathcona now and obviously looking at all the options going forward to deal with the homelessness issue in general," Simpson told reporters at the legislature, noting that some of the issue seems to be visitors to the camp going back and forth from the Downtown Eastside rather than the campers themselves.
"The most important thing right now is for us to understand those issues. We're also understanding what is the population of the Strathcona encampment and understand that better – and we’re doing that, in terms of who’s there and requires housing, who are the people who come there and spend time there because it’s part of their community but don’t necessarily camp there overnight."
Simpson says the province continues to lobby the federal government for money to invest in long-term housing like acquiring hotels or building temporary modular housing, but offered neither a timeline nor the suggestion that any specific plan was imminent to deal with the Strathcona encampment.
Advocates for the residents warn that leaving campers in limbo while the slow work of funding and building housing continues can lead to its own problems, not just the constant displacement and removal of campers from one site to another, which has already happened several times this year.
"The parks board regulations make homelessness permanent," said Karina Castro of the Red Braid Alliance. "The parks board regulations mean the City of Vancouver is giving up on ending homelessness and instead committing to treating homeless people as a social problem…Make no mistake: a government-sanctioned tent city is a cheap outdoor homeless shelter."
Several residents spoke about how difficult it was to find work or live a stable life when forced to pick up and move their tents and belongings each morning, which is what the park board bylaw amendment outlined.
"People are really confused with the bylaw going on -- I think they're mistaking it for it's a solution. None of us have ever asked for parks we want to camp in, it's housing and I don't think that's an unreasonable request," said Angela, who added how frustrated she is when people look down on the homeless as dirty, even though they don’t have the facilities to wash their clothes or themselves.
"The true focus of these camps should be on helping us do the things to help us get off the street but instead the focus seems to be on surveillance and containment," said another camper named Kylie.
To further complicate matters, the approval of a bylaw amendment to allow overnight camping in parks, which was highly contentious and narrowly passed, has hit a new road block. On Monday evening, it failed to pass its second reading by the park board, which would allow staff to begin drafting language to amend the bylaw, leaving the process in limbo until the next board meeting in September.
"The current bylaw has not been enforceable, particularly in encampment situations, as it is not aligned with the BC Supreme Court ruling that individuals experiencing homelessness have the right to shelter in parks and other public spaces when no other appropriate alternatives are available,” said spokesperson Christine Ulmer in an email.
The lack of progress is deeply frustrating to both the homeless and nearby residents of Strathcona Park who are united in their belief that permanent housing is the only solution, and one that needs to become a reality – soon.
"There are hundreds of people being paid millions of dollars to solve this problem, they all need to get in the same room and start figuring out what they can do rather than telling us 'it's hard, we can't do this,'" insisted Jackson.
"The rubber's got to hit the road here and actions need to be taken visibly. We know it's complicated and it's not going to get solved tomorrow, but there needs to be an acknowledgement and ownership that this problem belongs to somebody."