Supporting Heath, Safety and Dignity – A Future Tent City Model for Vancouver
Sarah Common is Chief Community Officer of Hives for Humanity, a non-profit organization that encourages community connections through apiculture, more commonly known as beekeeping, as well as Manager of the Hastings Urban Farm. LEDlab is proud to partner with Hives for Humanity on Building Bee Space.
I’ve been working in the community of the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver (DTES) since 2006. One of my roles is managing the Hastings Urban Farm at 58 West Hastings, working with a dedicated crew of DTES community farmers and volunteers. We offer skills training and work opportunities, in an inclusive and accessible space, that fosters self-worth and connection through land, food and culture.
For the past three months we have been working as neighbours to the latest Tent City in Vancouver. The open part of our site, which we used to host community events such as a weekly drum circle, was first occupied in early July. Witnessing the lifecycle of this protest has been frustrating, but not for the reasons that many assume.
My frustration is not with about the damage sustained to the farm. When I see our site vandalized, branches broken, plants pulled, fences cut, trellises snapped, and bees disturbed, I can read the pain of the individual in that place, the struggle for survival, the desperation and frustration.
My frustration is with the system that allowed this Tent City to degrade to a point where the word “bio-hazard” was suitable to be used. After initial leadership and support waned, what might have been a viable home for those living without, crumbled into decay.
As a neighbour and ally to Tent City, I watched as garbage quickly began to pile up along the fences and between tents. Sufficient sanitation was not put in place and so open defecation became chronic, and persisted well after the single porta-potty was installed. Tents became crowded together, many were abandoned, and most came to violate the fire safety standards. One tent erupted into a 12ft fire, which fortunately left none harmed, after residents and farmers came together quickly to put it out. Violence became the norm and, like the garbage and refuse, it spilled out into the farm regularly. And yet despite these cumulative issues, action wasn’t taken to support the health, safety and dignity of the residents.
A new plan is needed.
Should Vancouver experience future tent cities, as I am sure that it will, a new plan is needed. Instead of shuffling the homelessness problem around, further dislocating and displacing people, we need to take actions that support innovation and create space in our city for all.
Seeking shelter in tents, and coming together as a community to share resources and to offer each other support, is an innovative response to homelessness on the part of those living homeless. What I have seen clearly exhibited by this tent city, is that support structures are needed to empower residents to keep things safe, healthy and dignified. Without external support, survival needs take precedence and the health of the group is forgotten for the immediate needs of the individuals. Think about how hard it might be to keep a crowded community space clean when you haven’t slept or eaten, when you are cold and wet, when you are fighting for your survival and facing other barriers to stability, such as mental health and addiction issues, on top of all of that.
While tent cities are certainly not an end solution to homelessness, if implemented with support, they can be a viable part of the necessary spectrum of inclusive services. They can build access points for homeless residents; they can demonstrate need; they can be catalysts for conversation and change; and they can be important parts of working towards end solutions. Further, they can be part of a harm reduction approach, which does not judge the behaviour, but seeks to mediate the harm.
In any case, we need to be prepared with a better response than the one we have used these past three months, especially as we continue to face a housing crisis, which places incredible pressure on our most vulnerable citizens.
What if instead of being protests, tent cities were spaces of innovation and collaboration, supported by the City, and by businesses and community organizations alike? That’s the conversation that I’m interested in having, and which is thankfully beginning to take shape in Vancouver, exemplified in this Tyee and Megaphone article.
Depth of leadership, kindness, skill, creativity, knowledge and understanding exist in the DTES. We need to change our response to future tent cities to acknowledge that depth. We need to offer support that empowers leadership and supports innovation on all levels, in order to foster a healthy city for all.