Homeless tent cities play life-saving role and should be embraced, not battled, expert says

Tent cities are not the ultimate solution to a housing crisis but play an extremely important role, says a Vancouver lawyer who has fought on behalf of homeless people in that city.

'You can't displace homelessness away. A city is [only] buying itself a brief respite of cluelessness'

A still from an upcoming documentary in which Vancouver's Pivot Legal Society chronicles life inside the Anita Place encampment in Maple Ridge, B.C. (Pivot Legal Society)

Tent cities are not the ultimate solution to a housing crisis but play an extremely important role, says a Vancouver lawyer who has fought on behalf of homeless people in that city.

A homeless camp allows vulnerable people to be together for emotional support and safety, provides community and makes it easier for social service agencies to find and help them, said Anna Cooper, with Vancouver-based Pivot Legal Society, which works alongside marginalized communities.

"Tent cities are also playing an extremely important role in harm reduction right now, while we're in the midst of a national overdose crisis," she said.

The Anita Place tent city was established in May 2017 and has fought off two court injunctions, leading to an agreement with the city. (Peter Kim)

"From what Pivot has seen, overdoses are less common at these camps and deaths from overdoses are far less common simply because people are together and able to watch out for each other."

In Winnipeg, there's been discussion around tent cities recently after tents and tarps popped up over a matter of weeks at a West Broadway church. The people sleeping there were told to move on earlier this week.

Tent cities have been a longstanding issue in B.C., where Cooper has successfully defended residents of a camp named Anita Place, in the city of Maple Ridge, from eviction — twice. The group, which set up in a vacant lot in the city just east of Vancouver, celebrated its one-year anniversary on May 2.

"While the surrounding community can see these camps as inconvenient, they're actually life-saving locations," she said, calling them a bridge back into society.

"They're not a long-term solution but they're an interim option while communities are working on those long-term solutions."

Under an agreement with the city, the campers at Anita Place are required to obey certain fire rules and refrain from using certain combustible materials, are restricted to having one communal kitchen, and must dispose of their garbage daily.

Addictions workers have visited the camp to hand out naloxone, a drug that is used to block the effects of opioid overdoses, and give training on how to use it. Fire marshals have also visited, providing fire extinguishers and safety education, as well as identifying flammable materials.

Lawyer Anna Cooper has advocated with residents in the Maple Ridge Anita Place homeless camp for a warming tent, modular washrooms, new tents, sleeping bags, and a meal program. (Pivot Legal Society)

As well, housing workers have been able to sign people up on lists, and then more easily find them when housing is available, said Cooper.

"So that's a good example of how a city can actually work with a tent city. Ask them what they need, they will tell you and they will work with you," she said. 

"All too often, the only way we get to a conversation is once we're in court. Cities have a really bad way of communicating with homeless camps by trespass notices and court orders. That's not how you start a conversation."

And when you shut down a camp, you only shove the residents farther from the agencies they need and each other, leaving them alone and vulnerable, which doesn't solve anything in the long run, Cooper said.

"You can't displace homelessness away. A city is buying itself a brief respite of cluelessness when it does that."

Don't blame the homeless

Some of the criticisms against homeless camps are that they are dirty and unsanitary and perhaps dangerous.

Those accusations irk Cooper.

"Don't blame homeless people for the conditions they're forced to live in," she said. "If the concerns are over safety and cleanliness, the municipality needs to set up washrooms and provide access to water."

Terry Johnsen was one of the people who stayed in an encampment on the lawn of All Saints' Church in Winnipeg. Johnsen told CBC News he wasn't sure where he'll go now that the encampment has been shut down, but says moving on is part of life on the street. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

Cooper has advocated with the Anita Place campers for a warming tent, modular washrooms, new tents, sleeping bags, and a meal program. 

"There is a way for these camps to be safer than they are, but you can't put that on people who are living on welfare."

Every level of government is bound by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Section 7 outlines their duty to safeguard the life, liberty and security of every individual living in their community, she said.

"That is especially true for people who are marginalized and vulnerable and don't have a way to survive."

Arguably, these homeless camps are providing those safeguards, she said.

"This isn't just an inconvenience. This is a basic issue of whether some of your local residents survive."

Permanent encampment?

In Winnipeg, a downtown homelessness organization says its clients are telling them that they'd like a more permanent place to set up their tents. 

Christy Loudon, a co-ordinator with the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ's Community Homeless Assistance Team, says some people who live in so-called tent cities struggle with substance abuse or other issues that prevent them from living in a shelter.

Others would just rather be outside. 
Christy Loudon, a co-ordinator with the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ's Community Homeless Assistance Team, says some people who live in so-called tent cities struggle with substance abuse or other issues that prevent them from living in a shelter. (Travis Golby/CBC)

"People prefer to be outside, they want to be able to have freedom. And it's a community. It's a community of people who are facing the same issues and they are coming together," she said. 

Supports and services would need to come together too, Loudon says, including needle disposal and porta-potties. 

"There has been talk that many people want to see one area, a field dedicated to tents, but that would mean putting supports in place. We'd need professionals on board for that," Loudon said, adding doctors, nurses, occupational therapists and mental health professionals would need to be part of a long-term plan.

Areas where the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ Community Homeless Assistance Team works. (Travis Golby/CBC)

"What is that going to do long-term? Is that going to take people out of shelters and put them more into the encampments and tent cities?" Loudon said. 

"Because this is something that could go bigger than a football field."

Limited shelter space

Even those who want to stay at a shelter may find that difficult.

In Winnipeg, the crisis facing those shelter spaces is as serious as the affordable housing shortage. Many shelters are at capacity even in the warmest months, said Laiza Pacheco, director of programs and volunteer services at Winnipeg's Siloam Mission.

"We would love to have more resources in Winnipeg but sometimes it also comes down to the person experiencing homelessness and what makes them decide what resources they choose to access," she said.

People wait outside of Siloam Mission on Princess Street. (Brett Purdy/CBC)

An expansion of Siloam, which will add 50 beds to the 110 it already has, is underway. But there are other issues that could prevent some people from being allowed to use them.

Siloam will not allow anyone to stay if they are not sober.

"If that's something that individual cannot commit to, that would take them somewhere else," Pacheco said, adding there are other shelters in the city that will accommodate that.

Those rules are in place in order to ensure the safety and security of the others at the shelter, she said.

Growing economy, bigger problems

Jino Distasio, director of the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg, said tent cities are not not new.

For much of the year they are scattered about the city, even in the winter. They are more hidden and much smaller but they exist, he said.

A house made of cardboard on the lawn of All Saints' Anglican Church in West Broadway in early May. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

It's just that the issues that led to some 40 people camping in the yard of All Saints' Anglican Church, at the corner of Broadway and Osborne Street, are worse.

"What Winnipeggers have to come to realize is that we've come through probably 40 years of slow, stagnant economic and population growth. It's really only the last, maybe 15-ish years where the city has really experienced its boom period again," he said.

"What cities come to wrestle with is, as they get bigger and bigger, sometimes helping those in need gets forgotten. And that's what we can't do as a city."

The West Broadway area seems to have a history as a gathering place for the disenfranchised, as does All Saints'.

The church was also in the news in the 1960s when hippies — referred to as "longhairs" in newspaper reports at the time — were congregating around the fountain in Memorial Park, just across the street from All Saints'. The church took them in amid cries of opposition from some in the community who wanted them gone.

'Slum clearance'

For a long time, the mantra in dealing with homeless camps was to just get rid of them, Distasio said.

From the 1930s to 1950s, Rooster Town, a largely Métis community, existed on what was then the southwest fringes of Winnipeg, where Grant Park Shopping Centre, Grant Park High School and the Pan Am Pool are now.

Similarly, Tin Town, which got its name from the metal slapped together for the shanties, was set up near present day McGillivray Boulevard.

When they were on the outskirts of town, hidden among the brush and wild grass, the settlements were ignored. But once the city expanded, they were knocked down and the people pushed out.

Jino Distasio, director of the U of W's Institute of Urban Studies, says it's time to start looking at early prevention of homelessness rather than just treating the result. (University of Winnipeg)

"Slum clearance" was the order during the urban renewal movement in North American cities in the 1950s and '60s, Distasio said.

"We realized quickly that didn't end poverty," he said. "Sure, you could physically alter cities but you couldn't build your way out of poverty."

But many cities still try, Distasio said.

He spent time on research projects in California and watched street bylaw enforcement crews clear away homeless camps by blowing an air horn to wake people up. Then a bulldozer would move in and scrape away their belongings and shelters.

"It was pretty haunting," he said.

2 approaches

For the most part, though, Winnipeg has been at the forefront of offering tremendous support to people in need, and somehow "we need to recapture that spirit again," Distasio said.

What happened at All Saints' points to a deficit in the social system, showing we have failed somewhere, he said.

And we're not alone.

There are literally dozens and dozens of similar situations in most major cities across North America, Distasio said.

"I don't know that there's any analytics on it but my view is there has certainly, certainly been a rise in the frequency with which we're seeing tent cities springing up."

A person sleeps on the ground at All Saints' Anglican Church in May. People sleeping in tents on the church's lawn were asked to leave earlier this week. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Society has advanced "light years" from the slum clearance days and has made leaps in creating support systems of affordable housing, emergency shelters and service agencies, Distasio said.

"We have a much better understanding of the needs of individuals who are presently struggling with securing and maintaining housing," he said.

"We understand now the role of mental health, of addictions and of economic and social breakdowns. We get that it's much more complicated."

But something is still missing.

There are two main approaches used by municipalities facing homeless encampments. One is to hide behind the law and evict, citing bylaw infractions of health and safety for people occupying a space that's not meant for that purpose.

The other view is that tent cities are the result of the deepening divide in cities — an inequality that is much more prevalent today than ever before — and the failure of the government to deal with it.

They might suggest formalizing the encampments like in some countries — the favelas in Brazil and barrios in Spain.

It's not enough to look through just those two lenses, Distasio said, because regardless of which view you take "the bottom line is we still have people in need."

"So there is a third piece to that, which is just a bit more of a humanitarian angle," said Distasio, who​ 10 years ago was the lead researcher for the Mental Health Commission of Canada's At Home/Chez Soi project, a $110-million study of homelessness in Canada.

"Let's not worry about the reasons for or against these settlements, let's worry about what has resulted in an increased number of individuals who can't or don't find housing and try to address that."

Early intervention

The next layer is to focus more deeply on the prevention of homelessness.

"A lot of the solutions and programs and policies that we have in place are end-of-pipe, when somebody has already become homeless and is struggling with addiction or some other factor in their life," Distasio said.

"We address it at that end point, often at their lowest point in life. What we need to be figuring out is how the hell do we prevent somebody from becoming homeless in the first place? How far back do we need to go? Is it into early childhood?"

At one point, Winnipeg went through a period of shelter expansion, hoping that relieving pressure there would end homelessness. It didn't.

"I don't think the idea today is 'Oh my goodness, we've got an increased number of individuals who don't have homes. Let's build emergency shelters,'" said Distasio. "Certainly, we do need some shelter but we understand the problem to be more than that.

"We need to intervene before somebody gets to that point. And that is the much harder policy question."

About the Author

Darren Bernhardt

Reporter/Editor

Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, first at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories and features. Story idea? Email: darren.bernhardt@cbc.ca