British Columbia

As one tent city comes down in Vancouver, another pops up

Homeless people in Vancouver say housing conditions and a lack of coordination between social service groups mean cities are just playing a giant game of whack-a-mole when it comes to keeping the homeless from establishing tent cities.

Homeless people at small encampment in Vancouver say they have nowhere else to go

Stephen "Red" Robinson stands near his temporary home in Wendy Poole Park. (CBC)

Stephen "Red" Robinson has been busy trying to keep dry and warm the last few days. 

His make-shift tent in the small park near the corner of Main and Alexander streets, where he has lived for about two months, is mostly made up of wet blankets and a faded yellow patio umbrella. 

"There's no need for homelessness in Vancouver," said Robinson, a lean, energetic 49-year-old with a few days' of reddish stubble. 

"It's like, the more money there is, the worse off the homeless are."

Alongside Robinson's temporary home are a handful of tents — some newer-looking, others an assortment of tarps. He says a rotating cast of six to 10 people camp alongside him most nights. 

Not too far away, on the Downtown Eastside, city officials are beginning to dismantle a larger tent city near Hastings and Abbott streets. 

But Robinson says housing conditions and a lack of coordination between social services mean cities are just playing a giant game of whack-a-mole when it comes to keeping tent cities from popping up. 

Police officers walk through a tent city set up on West Hastings Street. The city said the camp will be dismantled over the next few days as residents are transferred to a Salvation Army shelter a few blocks away. (CBC)

'You don't have much energy'

Robinson used to work in the film industry as a scenic carpenter, until he had surgery for a hip replacement and couldn't work.

He says due to various bureaucratic complications, he wasn't able to get on unemployment assistance. So he's been homeless for two years, on and off.

Robinson says he did, however, just get one of his first disability cheques — $490. 

He says he set up his tent at Wendy Poole Park because of its proximity to social services and food. 

"It's really hard to be homeless and broke anywhere else in the Lower Mainland because you need a car," Robinson said.

"You don't have much energy, so two blocks is OK to walk." 

Stephen "Red" Robinson says he has been living in Wendy Poole park for nearly two months, alongside up to 10 others. (CBC)

His neighbour, who introduced himself as Chase, just moved from Alberta about three weeks ago. 

"I guess I'm between paycheques and I didn't really know where else to go," he said.  

"It's cold. But it's not as cold as it is in Alberta. But the wetness sure bears on a guy who's not used to it."

Chase has radial nerve damage in his right arm and hand, and he lives off of worker's compensation payments. 

He's confident he'll meet the right landlord and find a home of his own. 

"I won't be here long. I'll be getting my own place soon, believe me. This is not my life."

Safe housing

A spokesperson with the City of Vancouver said outreach workers do pop by to check in on Robinson and his neighbours from time to time and try to house them. 

But like many homeless people in the region, Robinson says he feels safer living in a tent than in a shelter. 

"The theft is terrible, and when you do get stuff stolen the staff don't really care," he said. "At least I can look after my own stuff, and we look after each other." 

Police have been helpful, he says. They too check in on occasion and offer meal tokens, smokes or just a friendly chat. 

But what Robinson is really looking for is blankets, dry socks, and a place to call his own. He'd build it himself right there in the park if he didn't think the city was going to tear it down. 

Robinson commends the city for its modular housing container initiative. What he doesn't understand is why there aren't more like it. 

"I don't know why it's such a big deal. Why is it so difficult?" he said. 

"I'm sick of this. Something's got to change." 

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.