Explainer: What is a homeless tent city?

A homeless tent city is an informal community where residents erect tents and other temporary housing structures. Tent cities have been set up by homeless people in municipalities across Canada. 

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Using the law as a catalyst for positive social change, Pivot Legal Society works to improve the lives of marginalized communities.

Tent cities are usually constructed on public land and near more populated areas where residents can be more readily connected to support and emergency services and near social services where food and water can be more easily accessed. They are often the result of a lack of accessible, safe, and affordable shelter and housing options. 

Where are some examples of tent cities?

Recent examples of homeless tent cities in Canada include:

  • Vancouver: The 2014 Oppenheimer Park tent city began when a small group of community activists came to camp with the homeless Vancouverites who were already sleeping in the park. They came to support those individuals and to highlight the need for affordable, clean and safe housing. Soon the camp expanded as hundreds of homeless and low-income residents moved in. Erected in July, the city evicted residents that October.
  • Toronto: For four years, more than a hundred campers called “Tent City” home, highlighting the housing crisis in Canada’s largest metropolis. It was situated in the downtown core of Toronto, near the waterfront and on property owned by Home Depot. Police supervised their eviction by private security guards in September 2002.
  • Edmonton: Dozens of tents were erected in Alberta’s capital in 2007, as homeless residents were evicted and relocated numerous times. A dramatic 20 per cent rise in the city’s homeless population was cited as a factor for the lack of available shelter.
  • Surrey: The second-largest and fastest growing municipality in British Columbia is the current home of an informal tent city near one of Surrey’s support service hubs. Police and city officials have dismantled previous camps, only to see them erected elsewhere.
  • Abbotsford: Tent city residents were evicted from Jubilee Park just days before Christmas 2013. The eviction occurred after police slashed tents and city staff spread manure at previous locations used by the city’s homeless. Campers have now set up a smaller tent city along Gladys Avenue, near the Salvation Army. 

Why is sleeping outside against the law?

Many municipalities have instituted city bylaws that prohibit sleeping in a park overnight, erecting a basic survival structure, or even sleeping in a car. 

Often citing fire and safety concerns, city officials and police enforce these bylaws to evict people from visibly sleeping in public spaces.

How Pivot is fighting the criminalization of homelessness

Alongside our clients in Abbotsford, we’re challenging bylaws that criminalize homelessness in the BC Supreme Court. Our clients will have their experiences heard in court in a groundbreaking lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of city bylaws that have endangered their lives.

If they are successful, governments will be compelled to shift away from policing and criminalizing homelessness, and start working towards long-term and sustainable solutions for housing those without homes.

Ending the criminalization of homelessness is a critical step in establishing the legal right to housing in Canada.