On Wednesday, May 17, in a quiet courtroom in the Supreme Court of British Columbia, the residents of the Ten Year Tent City fought for their right to survival—sharing stories of how an assembly of tents and the community that grew around it helped save their lives. At times holding back tears, they spoke powerfully about the struggles of being homeless, of the positive changes living in the tent city brought to their lives, and of the despair at the prospect of losing their home.
One woman told the court that residents of the tent city saved her partner’s life when he overdosed. Before finding community at 950 Main Street, the two of them had been living in a forest without access to a cell phone in order to avoid the daily, unrelenting harassment from bylaw enforcement officers and the police. Had the overdose occurred there, in the isolation of nature, she believes her partner would have died. She says he was only alive because tent city residents were trained to administer Naloxone and to keep watch over each other.
Another woman spoke of the unending harassment that follows her as a homeless trans woman—from passersby, from law enforcement, and from shelter workers. The Ten Year Tent City was the only place where the people around her cared enough to intervene when she was harassed. This was the theme echoed in many of the stories: the feeling of safety, security, and community. For others, simply having a safe place to sleep, eat, and live was an enormous relief from the stress and dangers of living on the streets.
Using the law as a catalyst for positive social change, Pivot Legal Society works to improve the lives of marginalized communities.
(Interactive Map: Tent Cities of the Past Several Months)
These testimonies were given to defend the women-led encampment at 950 Main Street—otherwise known as Ten Year Tent City—from the City of Vancouver’s application for injunction. If granted, it would have allowed the City to tear down the structures and the safety they afforded, displacing roughly 45 people who have lived there since the end of April. Residents can breathe a sigh of relief knowing they have won a brief reprieve from the cycle of daily displacement and the often dangerous realities of street homelessness.
950 Main Street: A Long History
This is not the first time 950 Main Street has been contested territory. In 2007, a number of homeless individuals and their supporters established a tent city there to shine a spotlight on Vancouver’s housing crisis and to advocate for social housing. Eventually, the City pledged to develop the site for social housing, and the residents left. For a decade, however, that promise has remained hollow and the lot has sat derelict since the City bought it in 1998.
In the meantime, the housing crisis has intensified. Rental rates are at an all-time high, climbing alongside the number of homeless people living in the Lower Mainland. These trends are fueled by provincial and municipal policies encouraging gentrification and displacement—policies that view homelessness and poverty as the result of personal moral failures rather than systemic ones. Against this backdrop, on April 28, 2017, housing activists and homeless individuals returned to the site for housing justice and for survival.
The BC Supreme Court Decision
On Monday, May 8, the City of Vancouver filed for an interlocutory injunction at the BC Supreme Court, submitting that the presence of the tent city was preventing the development of social housing on the lot. The development, headed by Lu’ma Native Housing Society, would be a mixed-use building with 26 residential units, only eight of which would be at welfare rate.
The City argued it would experience “irreparable harm” if the residents were not removed from the lot immediately. Contrary to previous injunction applications related to tent cities, the City did not rely on arguments related to health or fire safety violations, presumably because of residents’ significant efforts to ensure compliance with health and safety standards.
In court, tent city residents submitted affidavits and testified directly about the positive effects of their encampment and of the devastating consequences its destruction would cause. They argued the tent city is well-regulated by a council of women and that the community members keep each other safe. They spoke of their struggles with homelessness, the perils of sleeping on the street, the difficulty in finding and keeping a job when there is no place to shower or store belongings during the day, and the lack of diverse shelter options for women.
After deliberation, the judge ruled that she would not grant the injunction, declaring that at this time, the harm of granting it would far outweigh the benefits of doing so.
Residents are already bracing themselves for another injunction application from the City. If it is successful, they will be thrown out of a protective community into the middle of the raging opioid and affordable housing crises, both of which have claimed thousands of victims so far.
Unfortunately, this is a familiar scenario: Victoria’s Super InTent City and the tent city at 58 West Hastings were dismantled by the municipal governments. More recently, municipal authorities in Maple Ridge partially dismantled Anita's Place, vowing to obtain an injunction to fully dismantle the tent city soon. Anita's Place was opened after the only homeless shelter in the city was closed. The tent city at Duncan may also find itself dismantled by municipal authorities soon.
Tent cities are not a permanent solution to homelessness. We must move towards a society that sees homelessness as entirely preventable, and recognizes housing as a human right. Until then, anti-poor policies such as dismantling tent cities will only exacerbate the problem. In the absence of new social housing, destroying these communities will further drive our society’s most vulnerable to the margins absent the support, safety, and security that will keep them safe.
At bare minimum, the municipal and provincial governments should collaborate with tent cities to ensure they meet health and safety standards. Making life more difficult for homeless people is not a policy to end homelessness. It is a policy to end homeless lives.