Homeless camp's citizens settling in for winter

Unwilling to take their chances at the city's homeless shelters, the tight-knit community of campers living in tents near Ottawa's downtown say they plan to stay put.

Unwilling to take their chances at city shelters, campers say they're staying put

David Vance, left, sits with Justin Bolger, right, beside the camp's fire pit. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Every evening they gather for dinner around an open fire in a quiet wood near downtown Ottawa. Sometimes it's hot dogs, sometimes it's pizza. Everyone gets a meal before retiring to their tents for the long, cold night.

"We all kind of look out for each other when it comes to time to eat," said Justin Bolger, a founding member of the camp. "We'll make sure everybody at least gets one meal a day."

It's just one of the ways this sudden community of people with nowhere else to go is building itself from the ground up, literally. 

Most of the estimated 20 men and women here became homeless after a pair of rooming houses burned down in separate fires in the spring. With nowhere else to go, some spent weeks huddled in a parking lot beside one of the burned-out buildings.

Then someone found the clearing near the Bayview LRT station, and word quickly spread.

"I think they thought ... finally, somewhere they can call home again for now. Temporarily," Bolger said. 

Bolger emerges from his tarp-covered tent. (Laura Osman/CBC)

A sense of calm

But with many of the camp's residents settling in for winter, it no longer appears like a temporary arrangement. Some of the tents have been insulated and are warmed by kerosene heaters running off car batteries.

Still, Bolger said, they'd rather be here than in one of the city's crowded, noisy and sometimes dangerous homeless shelters. Here, he said, everyone looks out for one another, and there's a calm homeless people rarely find anywhere else.

"Quiet. No stress," he said, looking around the camp. "Peace."

Despite the conditions — the snow has come early this November, and Friday night's wind chill was predicted to reach –23 — the camp keeps growing.

"I think a lot of people that are in shelters or whatnot will end up coming here," said David Vance, who was already sleeping here months before his new neighbours arrived.

Many of the camp's residents lived at this Lebreton Street rooming house until it burned down in April, leaving them homeless. (Scott Stilborn/@OFSFirePhoto)

A growing concern

That prospect is worrying city officials.

The number of people sleeping rough in Ottawa has nearly doubled from an estimated 50 last year to more than 90 now, according to Coun. Catherine McKenney, the mayor's liaison on housing. 

"It is growing. It is growing at an alarming rate," McKenney said. 

Tent city residents on the community they created

3 years ago
Duration 1:44
Justin Bolger, right, and David Vance explain how residents support each other and why their outdoor community feels safer and cleaner than many shelters. 

Along with Coun. Jeff Leiper, McKenney has been working with a number of local churches to open an overnight warming centre for residents of the camp, but Bolger said many of them won't use it. 

"It's like the same thing as going to a shelter," he said.

On Friday, McKenney announced permanent homes had been found for five of the camp's occupants. The rest have been moved to the top of a priority list for rent subsidies.

For now, they appear to be hunkering down.

Staying positive

A roofer by trade, Bolger has been working hard to ready the camp for winter.

"We've got a 10 by 20 carport that we're gonna set up," he said. "I just got a couple insulated tarps that we're gonna wrap it in and hopefully see how that goes."

The group has received plenty of donations, but they're still on the lookout for more car batteries, work gloves and Home Depot gift cards.

There have been a few complaints about the camp, but not many. (CBC)

The campers chose this spot carefully. It's close to their old neighbourhood and the health and social services they continue to use there. Also, police tend to leave them alone.

While there have been a few complaints, the campers feel that for the most part, they're out of sight and out of mind.

Bolger said none of the remaining residents would choose a tent over a warm, safe apartment, but they intend to make the best of it for now.

"We're all living together trying to stay positive over a shitty situation," he said. "We all kind of try to keep each other uplifted."