Shawn Dunbar is standing in the sun with his shirt off guzzling lemon-lime Gatorade. It’s July 28 and the temperature is 30 C, making this the hottest week of the year in Vancouver, and Shawn has just finished stretching a tarp over his tent. With the front flap directly facing the shores of the Burrard Inlet and the North Shore mountains, he’s got one of the best views in Vancouver.
There’s not much shade for tents in CRAB (Create a Real Available Beach) Park, accessible from the northernmost foot of Main Street in the Downtown Eastside. The port nearby can be a noisy neighbour, but Dunbar, his partner Heather and their dog Mia are happy for the spot to shelter. They’re among the 75 people who make up the park’s tent city, a population that’s doubled since January. The encampment, despite being shuffled around the park a few times, has persisted here for over a year.
“Just because we’re homeless doesn’t mean we can’t make it nice,” said Dunbar, showing off the portable shower kit given to them by an online seller who had once lived in his car and empathized with their situation. They use it in their standalone shower tent (this they had to buy).
Their time on the street started over a year ago. They had a live-work arrangement with the owner of a farm in Kelowna. But when the work was done, the couple was not paid.
“We live paycheque to paycheque. We’re not rich,” said Heather. “So that’s how we became homeless.”
They returned to Vancouver where they’ve lived before, paying $1,200 for a room in a Kerrisdale house on the city’s west side. They decided that was too much for the little they were getting and decided to sleep on the street instead. For a while they rotated between the Vancouver Aquatic Centre on Beach Avenue, a nearby condo and CRAB Park, eventually settling in the park about a month ago. It was the only place where they weren’t asked to leave.
Many of their tent city neighbours have come from the nearby Downtown Eastside, where a concentration of residents deal with poverty, mental health, substance use and poor or no housing.
In the past, the City of Vancouver has dealt with such camps in parks by working with BC Housing to help people find temporary and permanent homes. As people begin to move out, city staff fence off more and more of a park until everyone is gone.
But a big reason why people settle in tent cities in the first place is because it offers a better home than shelters or single-room occupancy hotels, many of which are dirty, unsafe, pest-ridden or inaccessible.
In January, a B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled that the quality of the housing offered has to be considered before people living in parks are relocated — meaning the residents of CRAB Park can stay for now.
No shade in the heat
A room in an SRO might be hot in the summer, but it can also be unbearable in a tent when the sun rises at 5 a.m., said Fiona York, a tent city advocate who co-ordinates with the authorities and groups making donations.
“It would be so much better here if [the tents] were under tree cover,” said York.
Heat deaths are top of mind in B.C. since last year’s extreme weather event — called a heat dome — resulted in 619 deaths. A report by the provincial coroner found that more of the people who died lived in “socially or materially deprived neighbourhoods than the general population.”
The Downtown Eastside has been identified as one of those neighbourhoods with not only a vulnerable population, but an especially hot urban location with a lack of shade.
To make things more difficult, a large swathe of CRAB Park with trees and shade has been fenced off, which has "outraged" the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, who’ve called it part of the “mounting perils” experienced by the disproportionate number of Indigenous people in the area who already don’t have adequate housing.
A park board spokesperson explained to The Tyee in a statement that the area is fenced off because of “remediation due to items found embedded in the soil.”
The park board spokesperson added that outreach staff have visited the park to do wellness checks, offer information on nearby services and provide water, though York says the bulk of donations come from individuals and community organizations stopping by.
Still, the park’s water mister, running drinking water and the single electrical outlet all “make a big difference” in the heat, says York.
That access to power means that residents have been able to set up a tent with fans, a fridge and a water dispenser as a cooling station.
Housing stories over French toast
On top of the heat, it’s been a tough week to be unhoused.
On July 25, four people were shot in Langley, some of whom were unhoused. That same day in Vancouver, a woman was sitting on the sidewalk in the Downtown Eastside when a man poured flammable liquid on her head and lit it. Also around the same time, police said that a man’s “homemade structure” in an alley, where he was sleeping, was also set on fire.
The tent city has had its share of harassment, with some people who did not live there coming by with knives to slash up a tent and smash up the residence.
Then on July 28, the fire department began ordering people who’ve been tenting on Hastings Street to leave, deeming them a fire hazard. It has the residents of the CRAB Park tent city wondering if they’ll be getting some new neighbours.
But David Bradbury has a smile on his face because he’s helping prepare something rare: breakfast. The tent city gets a lot of donations, but they’re mostly lunches and dinners.
An outdoor kitchen has been set up under one of the few trees with shade that residents have access to and Bradbury is in charge of flipping the French toast.
“How many are in your tent?” he asks passersby.
He plates the toasts with the help of Crystal Prasad, who sprinkles cinnamon, pours syrup and makes sure everyone has a portion of oranges and bananas.
Prasad, who just arrived back in Vancouver a day ago, is happy to be here. She was living in the Oppenheimer Park tent city three years ago, when she was pregnant, before moving out to New Westminster.
“I was on the street,” said Prasad. “It was bad. I tried to get into a shelter, but it was just impossible.”
Amos Williams, who stops by for breakfast, is helping in a different way. He’s come across tent city residents struggling with drug use or who are fathers who’ve lost custody of their children.
“I’m trying to get some programs started,” he said.
Williams is Haida and says his desire to support others stems from Elders checking in on him, many of whom recognize him because he has the same name as his well-respected great-grandfather.
Williams comes to the tent city from the Colonial Hotel, an old SRO that’s a world away from the construction projects he’s worked on downtown, from the luxurious former Trump International Hotel and Tower to Telus Garden.
He describes the important difference between the tent city and his former SRO in one word: “Calmer.”
Elder Walter is a big part of that. He’s Sḵwx̱wú7mesh but grew up in Alberta after being adopted as part of the '60s Scoop. He came to the tent city four months ago.
“There was no security in it anymore,” he said, remembering his time in the SRO. “There were three rival groups of drug dealers. My door was kicked in a few times.”
Elder Walter likes helping others, but he was disappointed when he wasn’t treated the same way in his building.
“My lungs fill up with fluid. I take pills everyday and I have heart failure. I’m on the third floor, so it’s hard for me to get up the stairs. There’s no elevator. Halfway up the first flight of stairs, I couldn’t make it up. There’s 100 rooms. You think anyone would help me? All of them walked by me. They’d say, ‘Oh, what’s up with him? Is he drunk? Is he high?’ And they’d laugh. So I quit.”
After sheltering in the tent city, he likes to think that things have gotten better because of his penchant to check in on everyone.
“I get right in their face,” he said. “I won’t tolerate theft. I won’t tolerate violence.”
The jolly Bradbury, as he continues to dish out French toast, couldn’t be happier to have them as neighbours.
“I was here a year ago,” he said. “I moved down from Kitimat, me and my wife. And then my wife passed away in August. And then it was, ‘What do I do, where do I go?’ I came back here and it’s just a good place to be. There’s a lot of people with an enormous amount of skill, and thank God we have them here to help.”