For years, the City of Vancouver has dealt with large camps in city parks by working with BC Housing to find shelter spots, SRO rooms and other housing units. Then outreach teams and city staff begin a process that starts with offering unhoused people those spaces and ends with fencing off bigger and bigger areas until everyone is gone.
But camp residents often complain that the housing they’ve been offered is dirty, infested with pests, unsafe or inaccessible.
Now a B.C. Supreme Court judge has ruled that the quality of those housing spots needs to be considered before people living in parks are moved along.
For the people currently living in Crab Park, the ruling means they can stay — for now. People have been living at Crab Park for around nine months. Camp supporters estimate around 35 people are currently living in the encampment.
“I was reading through a copy of the decision in our food tent, and it just brought tears of joy to my eyes because — we win. In some small way, we win,” said David Nelson, who lives in the tent city.
Clint Randan said that before he and his partner, Kerry Bamberger, came to the park they were living at the Flint Hotel, a single-room occupancy hotel run as supportive housing with funding from BC Housing. SROs are century-old hotels with small rooms and shared bathrooms.
Randan previously spoke to The Tyee about the window of his room he said had been broken for nearly two years. He says he and Bamberger can no longer live in the building because of safety and health concerns.
“It’s a health hazard, period, the whole building,” Randan said. “My health has increased here, being outside that building.”
Previous B.C. court judgments have upheld the right for unhoused people to shelter in parks overnight if there are no indoor shelter or housing spaces for them.
Since 2016, there has been a large tent city somewhere in Vancouver, at first moving from empty lot to empty lot and then to city parks, all in or near the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood.
From 2018 to 2020, a tent city housing hundreds of people was located at Oppenheimer Park. When that encampment was shut down in 2020 with a provincial public safety order, the tent city briefly moved to a lot next to Crab Park — but that encampment was swiftly evicted by the Port of Vancouver, who owns the land and got a court injunction to remove the settlement.
The encampment then moved to Strathcona Park, where it lasted from June 2020 until April 2021.
While some residents said the Oppenheimer and Strathcona tent cities provided a strong community and were safer than people being homeless alone, there were also violent crimes perpetuated against camp residents, including a homicide and a horrific sexual assault. Some neighbourhood residents also complained that the large encampments prevented them from using the parks.
In reaction to previous court rulings that had affirmed people’s right to camp overnight on public lands, Vancouver park board commissioners passed a new bylaw in 2020. It allows overnight tenting in parks for people who are experiencing homelessness, but only if tents are removed by 8 a.m. The bylaw also states that tents can’t be left unattended and prohibits campfires and propane stoves.*
Overnight camping isn’t allowed at all now at Oppenheimer and Strathcona.
After a July 8 order made by the general manager of the park board, Donnie Rosa, camping was also not allowed at Crab Park, although the encampment continued. Rosa made another order on Sept. 7 to close part of the park so damage caused by the tent city could be fixed.
Those two orders are at the heart of the court case, and they’ve both been set aside by Justice F. Matthew Kirchner in a judicial review of the orders. He sent the decision back to the park board for reconsideration.
In his judgement Kirchner said the park board had failed to properly consult with residents. He also agreed with Crab Park encampment residents who said that while they may have been offered shelter spaces, those spaces were often not suitable or available.
The park board argued the campers should be forced to move because there were alternative spaces available.
But the judgment noted the evidence of campers who said the alternatives weren’t available or were dangerous or bug-infested.
In a deposition, Bamberger said she had told BC Housing that she needed housing that wasn’t infested by rats or bugs and she didn’t want to live in an SRO. She said that while she’d been told that outreach workers are looking for a space for her, they’ve never offered her anything but instructions for getting on a list for a shelter bed.
Arnold Manitopyes, a 67-year-old Crab Park resident from Muskowekwan First Nation in Saskatchewan, said in a deposition that he had ended up in the park after living in an SRO with a friend that was “filled with bedbugs.” He said he’s spoken with outreach workers about getting housing, but has told them he can’t live in a place that had bedbugs. He’s also told outreach workers he can’t live in a place where he has to sign in and sign out because it reminds him of the similar requirements his grandparents faced living on their reserve.
Outreach workers also spoke to him about moving into a shelter where he would sleep on a cot in an auditorium. But as a residential school survivor, Manitopyes said he doesn’t feel safe living in that kind of environment.
Narces Mike Dechaghadjian and Shane Bailey told lawyers that they stay at the park because they either haven’t been able to find available space at homeless shelters, or have had their belongings stolen at the shelters they have been able to stay at.
Kirchner wrote that the information provided by Carnegie Outreach, BC Housing and Rosa about available housing and shelter spots wasn’t detailed enough to show that the places being offered are actually suitable for the unique needs of the people experiencing homelessness at Crab Park.
Rosa told The Tyee the Supreme Court decision indicates that the overnight camping bylaw needs to be reviewed. She said she would continue to work with BC Housing on finding appropriate housing options for people.
“I’m not the one who sits down and says this person needs these services, I leave it to BC Housing for that,” Rosa explained.
“From what I understand that’s what they’ve been doing and when they said, ‘Yes, we have enough suitable indoor spaces,’ that’s what I was going on.”
Rosa said the park board has no plans to remove the tents that are at the park now, but staff do not want the encampment to grow any larger.
In a statement to The Tyee, BC Housing said 41 people at Crab Park have already accepted housing offers and the agency still has 50 indoor spaces available, including shelter spots, affordable housing units and SRO rooms.
“I think the situation that everybody wants is for there to be actual, suitable housing,” said Julia Riddle, one of the lawyers representing Crab Park encampment residents. “Enough for everyone living outside. Every single person who gave evidence in that case made that abundantly clear — everyone wants to be inside.”
* Story updated on Jan. 18 at 2:19 p.m. to correct information about why the Vancouver park board passed a new bylaw in 2020. The bylaw was created in response to previous B.C. Supreme Court decisions, not in response to an encampment at Strathcona Park.