In response to Homelessness Action Week (October 12-18), the City of Vancouver dismantled the tent city at Oppenheimer Park. At 10pm on October 17th, the Vancouver Police Department enforced the BC Supreme Court injunction and sent homeless people packing. While dominant media coverage of the dispersal from the park has emphasized the placement of people into housing and shelters, it has neglected to give voices to the people who say they would rather sleep in tents than in the City’s shelter beds. This is because often shelters do not have space for people to store their belongings overnight. This is because people do not feel safe from the threat of sexual and physical violence in the shelters.
During the same week, the Ray-Cam Co-operative Centre, a Downtown Eastside community centre, announced that BC Housing is selling Stamps Place, one of Vancouver’s biggest social-housing complexes. As DTES artist and community organizer Ali Lohan said, it is more accurately Homelessness Action Weak.
In previous commentaries I’ve written about displacement in Vancouver caused by gentrification in the context of the original displacement of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples, the original inhabitants of this land known as Vancouver. Now I want to consider people bought to this land by displacement.
In August 2010, a few short months after Vancouver’s $6 billion Olympic spectacle (the City’s second mega event after Expo 86), 492 Tamil children, women, and men arrived on the coast of British Columbia. Fleeing ethnic persecution and civil war, the migrants boarded the cargo ship MV Sun Sea and began their dangerous 3–month journey. Various state forces intercepted the ship and directed it to Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt on the southern tip of Vancouver Island before incarcerating the migrants at prisons throughout Greater Vancouver.
Last week the City of Vancouver applied to the B.C. Supreme Court for an injunction to dismantle the tent city at Oppenheimer Park, claiming concern over wet weather conditions. Despite the offer of shelter beds, many protesters are refusing to leave. Vancouver Parks Board lawyer Ben Parkin says “I’m not sure what more the city could do to create an orderly transition. We’ve provided shelter spaces, we’ve provided transportation.” But tent city residents are protesting Vancouver’s dwindling stock of affordable housing as well as the City's lack of comprehensive housing strategies, and shelter spaces are a temporary fix, a stopgap measure.
In this commentary I want to look at the City’s injunction against Oppenheimer Park tent city, an impermanent architecture, in relation to two poetic texts that contemplate the built environment: Lisa Robertson’s Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office of Soft Architecture(Clear Cut Press 2003; Coach House Books, 2006 & 2010) and Thursdays Writing Collective’s The Stanza Project (Otter Press, 2013), edited by Elee Kraljii Gardiner.
Bud Osborn was a poet and social justice activist much beloved in the Downtown Eastside. His death in May this year is loss to the community. Osborn was a founding member of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), a collective advocating for harm reduction policies in the City.
For weeks I’ve been trying to write this post on the Downtown Eastside, one of Vancouver’s oldest residential areas — historic home to many working-class immigrant communities and currently the City’s most contested and fought-for space as gentrification escalates rents and property values and poor and low-income people are displaced — anxious to do justice to a place close to my heart where much of my own history lies. How to write about the neighbourhood I have lived in for almost two decades, first as a drug user and sex worker and now as a college instructor?