As I watched city workers sweep across Oppenheimer Park today, dismantling tents and piling people’s possessions into storage bins and garbage trucks, I thought back on what has probably been the most challenging few weeks of my professional life.
Using the law as a catalyst for positive social change, Pivot Legal Society works to improve the lives of marginalized communities.
Almost three weeks ago, a few people who had helped organize the original Oppenheimer Park camp – before it grew into the homeless tent city it was just 24 hours ago – came to the Pivot office to ask for our help. The city had just served the camp with an injunction application, giving those living there just four days to find housing and get out.
Along with other members of the Pivot team, I spent the following three days canvassing the park, interviewing as many campers as possible to get a sense as to why they were there. For the majority of those I spoke to, the reason was simple: they had nowhere else to go. Sleeping in the park was not a form of protest, it was a means of survival.
There was Jon, a military veteran who previously served in Afghanistan. There was Red, who has struggles with his mental health and in his interactions with police. There was Scott, wheelchair-bound with a list of health issues. There were Dave and Miranda, a couple whose only way to live together is in a tent. There were dozens of others, too, each of them with their own story about how they ended up homeless, living in a tent in Oppenheimer Park. Some came to escape deplorable conditions in single room occupancy hotels; others had been living on the streets for years. At Oppenheimer Park, they found a community, one that kept them safe.
We went to court on the fourth day armed with these stories and a single request: give these people more time. More time to access the housing and shelter the city has been working to establish. More time to allow outreach workers to help connect them to the support services they need. More time to explain to the court why a tent city is the best place to be, absent any meaningful alternatives.
The justice heard these stories and gave more time.
Alongside our incredible and hard-working legal team, I spent the next week gathering more information. Each person I met and spent time with had a story that was more heart-breaking than the person before. Struggles with addiction, disability, mental health. Women fleeing violence. Time spent in residential schools. A life spent on the streets.
Once again we took these stories to the court. We explained that Oppenheimer Park was not simply a protest. We argued that the people living there were in desperate situations, in need of housing, community, safety, stability.
After two long days of hearings, the justice delivered her decision – the camp had to go.
I was devastated. So were the homeless campers we represented.
When you are already living a precarious life, being told you have to leave your home is incredibly destabilizing. There was anger and there were tears. Mostly, people felt powerless and hopeless.
Yesterday morning, a week after that decision and a night after the eviction deadline came into effect, the park was still filled with tents. Most had been abandoned as the people who once occupied them either moved into shelters or found another place on the streets to stay.
The dozen or so people that remained in the park were and are the most vulnerable. For them, a shelter is no option. Staying on a mat on a floor in a room with dozens of strangers is no option. Being separated from your loved ones is no option. Living weeks or months like this while you wait for promised housing is no option.
As I write this, they are still hunkered down in their tents, surrounded by police and refusing to leave the place that for the last three months they have called home.