Several former tent city residents are back to living on the street, nearly two weeks after a court order forced homeless campers out of Oppenheimer Park.
City statistics indicate about 10 former campers haven’t been placed, despite plans to open over 400 interim and permanent housing units in coming months and efforts by B.C. Housing and city staff to place all campers in temporary shelters or supported housing.
“It’s not where I want to go,” said former tent city resident Gary Humchitt, who sees Oppenheimer Park as his home. He has gone back to living outside as he isn’t interested in the crammed rooms or temporary shelters that he believes is all the city is offering.
Humchitt, who wants to “get off the streets” said he would rather stay outside than move from shelter to shelter.
That kind of attitude might be more about a legacy of mistrust of authority than a lack of housing options said Penny Gurstein, director of UBC’s school of community and regional planning and centre for human settlements.
She said a lack of confidence about what city authorities are willing and able to do is the central reason why Humchitt and others like him might reject housing offers.
An indigenous issue
Oppenheimer Park’s tent city ran throughout the summer. At its height, it was home to approximately 400 people, many of them indigenous.
On Oct. 15, a B.C. Supreme Court injunction deadline expired, forcing all campers to vacate the park. Humchitt, who identifies as Kwakiutl and Nuxalk First Nations, was among five campers arrested for refusing to accept the deadline.
“I stood my ground because I know it’s not their land to kick me out of,” he said, claiming that the park sits on unceded First Nations land.
Since being released from custody, Humchitt has been sleeping on benches.
“I went from homeless to homelessness,” he said.
According to the 2014 homeless count, aboriginal people comprise 23 per cent of Vancouver’s 1,803 homeless, despite being only two per cent of the city’s population. The same study showed that over half of the aboriginal homeless were living outside, rather than in shelters.
For Audrey Siegl, a COPE city-council candidate from Musqueam First Nation who helped organize the tent city, the encampment was an “act of awareness” that shed light on indigenous homelessness and indigenous land issues.
“We have people whose hearts, and spirits, and bodies are broken, but we are starting to feel our own power,“ Siegl said.
The city’s response
According to city officials, approximately 90 park residents moved into shelters, while another 60 were placed in alternative housing.
“It is clear that the city and province are acting in good faith,” said Gurstein.
Despite new housing alternatives, she believes that affordability lies at the center of Vancouver’s homelessness problem.
“There will always be more homeless people coming up. It’s part of the economic structure we are in.”