by Kim Del Valle Garcia
Feeling far too similar to Santa for my liking, I’m walking down Hastings with a garbage sack full of plums over a shoulder and a Ziploc bag bulging with still warm spaghetti in one hand. Today I’m on my way to deposit my “gifts” to the newly formed tent city in Oppenheimer Park.
Located in the heart of “Little Tokyo,” this park has a sordid history of politics and protests. In 1938 the park was one of the sites of Vancouver’s infamous Bloody Sunday and in 1941 the Asahi baseball league, comprised of Japanese-Canadians, was forced to play their final game due to the eviction of much of the community into internment camps.
Currently the park is the site of a tent city of about 40 campers occupying the park to protest the sorry state of homelessness in Vancouver. Despite Mayor Gregor Robertson’s promise to end street homelessness by 2015, data released in April shows Vancouver now has the largest homelessness population in the city’s history with a total of 1,798 people identified as homeless, 538 living on the street, 1,136 in shelters and 124 of no fixed address.
I approach the tent city and am warmly greeted by the campers. The spaghetti, which has been shaken into a warm mush, disappears from my hands quickly and I find a spot to dump the plums.
Surveying the camp I notice about a dozen tents and an imposing structure covered in cedar boughs marking the sweat lodge and a sacred fire, which is kept burning 24-7.
This encampment causes the dismay of City Council, which has issued a series of eviction notices citing bylaws that prohibit sleeping in parks and erecting structures on public property. In an official statement, the city stated that camping in parks is not allowed and the presence of tents and other structures is impeding other residents’ enjoyment of the space. Although some campers do have a place to live off the streets, life in the park is preferable. Vancouver houses its homeless in “rundown, unsafe hotel rooms,” according to Brody Williams of the Haida Nation, one of the organizers. Williams also mentions how living in the park provides a level of freedom not possible in Social Housing where residents often have strict guest policies and harm reduction rules.
Although many question the effectiveness of this type of tent city demonstration, I look to a recent trip to Portland’s Dignity Village to provide evidence for its success.
Sandwiched between the city of Portland’s compost collection yard and the Columbia River Correctional Institution, Dignity Village occupies a 2 acre swath of concrete dotted with a number of tiny homes, gardens, communal spaces, a greenhouse and a workshop. The city of Portland designated Dignity Village as a “Transitional Housing Campground.”
The Village needed a larger, rodent-free compost pile to store the camp’s surplus of food scraps. A few volunteers from all over the US and myself were eager to prove that we were not just here to ogle the residents in a shameless go at “poor-ism,” so we had taken it upon ourselves to clear the way for construction. Baking on the pavement in a space that would normally hold 2 or 3 vehicles was a scattering of little garden boxes, filled with veggies, herbs and flowers. It was a smoking hot spring day that I found myself digging in the raised garden beds.
Standing up, I was overcome with the surreal scene around me. There are a number of terms to describe what I was looking at: campground, dysfunctional hippie commune, or ghetto were a few that came to mind. But the folks who call it home prefer to use the label “intentional community”.
The Village is a homeless city that is self-sustaining and self-governed where up to 60 residents work as a village to thrive with minimal help from the government or any outside sources. There are only two requirements to become a resident:
1) You have to be over 18 and,
2) You have to be homeless.
Once you’re in, you are provided with a tiny 10 foot by 10 foot home outfitted with the bare necessities. No electricity or running water is available in the houses, but shower facilities are provided by harnessing rainwater, the site has a large communal kitchen where many can share a meal in the winter months, and the homes are heated by donated propane heaters.
As I gander at the village it is obvious that there has been much work put into the project, but how does a rag-tag gang of once homeless create such a project?
To answer my question I sought out one of the organizers, Mitch, who had two words for me: “civil disobedience”. According to Mitch the Village found its roots in 2000 as a migrating tent city, when a group of 8 homeless banned together for protection while living in the streets. The group was “drinking beer or what, got a hair and decided to occupy land.” The small group began growing in size while occupying city land in what they dubbed “Camp Dignity.”
Almost immediately the police began confronting the camp for unlicensed use of park land, forcing the group to load up their belongings in shopping carts as they were “moved” on from site to site.
Eventually gaining extensive media coverage, Camp Dignity’s “shopping cart parades” gained a level of fame until the most well-known parade took place on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2001 which included 35 shopping carts and the spectacle of armed policemen herding the group along.
With support for Camp Dignity growing, the Portland City Council eventually succumbed, granting the group access to the 2 acre parcel of land that has grown into the community that I found myself digging in on that hot spring day. Dignity Village now enjoys a small sense of permanency having just signed a 3-year lease with the City of Portland, but the residents fear that this inkling of security will also bring with it the complacency that could prove to be its downfall. Continually Dignity Village has to fight complaints against the way they handle addiction and pressures to re-develop the land into an expanded compost heap for one of Portland’s neighbours, Gresham, but due to its “out of sight, out of mind” location the camp has difficulty gaining the same level of support as it had in 2001 leaving its future uncertain.
After surviving my late teens and early twenties in a housing “rich” city such as Vancouver, I was no stranger to alternative housing situations: collective houses, cob communes, farming cooperatives, urban trailer parks—all with the intention of community and affordability, but Portland’s Dignity Village has shown that the tiny house movement is not just for hippies or hipsters.
Turning my attention back home to Vancouver with the lessons of Dignity Village floating through my head and an ounce of inspiration in my heart, I find myself asking if Oppenheimer’s camp-out style of civil disobedience could propel a small group of homeless to build a Village.
Without these acts of civil disobedience the homeless populations of any city could easily fade into the background, and the problem of homelessness might never be addressed. In the meantime I support the campers of Oppenheimer Park with their success in bringing attention to homelessness in Vancouver. For those who would also like to support the camp there are a few ways to do so:
“Mayor Gregor Robertson held a press conference Thursday September 25 saying the city had affidavits supplied by police and fire officials depicting health and safety problems at the park. Notices informing campers that the park must be cleared by the end of Monday (September 29) were distributed.” Vancouver Sun, September 29, 2014