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Vancouver's homeless create new tent city to advocate for social housing

Residents of the 58 W. Hastings Tent City block the entrance of the council chambers to Mayor Robertson and City Council as part of a protest for affordable housing at Vancouver City Hall on Tuesday.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Dozens of homeless and low-income people are sleeping in an empty lot in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in the latest attempt to use a tent city to advocate for more affordable housing.

A handful of tents were pitched on Saturday on a city-owned lot at 58 West Hastings St. – the same site of a similar protest during the 2010 Winter Olympics. In just a few days since, the number of tents in the lot has grown to more than 40, housing roughly 50 people.

People living in the tent city, affordable-housing activists and other members of the community marched to City Hall on Tuesday, saying they want the site transformed into social housing at welfare and pension rates and demanding a meeting with Mayor Gregor Robertson.

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"We also are here to say that the folks currently camped out on that site need access to decent, dignified housing on an even shorter time frame," said Aiyanas Ormond, an employee of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users who has been volunteering at the site. Mr. Ormond said the vast majority of people who joined the march to City Hall were homeless or living in "inadequate" conditions.

"This mayor has been saying for quite a few years that homelessness and housing are his top priority, so you'd think he'd be interested in meeting with and hearing from a group of people from the Downtown Eastside," Mr. Ormond said. "These are the people he claims to be really concerned about."

Mr. Robertson met with the group on Tuesday afternoon and agreed to meet again within the next few weeks.

The mayor was first elected eight years ago with a campaign that promised to wipe out street homelessness by 2015, but that goal has so far eluded the city. In 2008, 1,576 homeless people were counted in Vancouver. In 2016, the figure was higher than it has been in a decade, at 1,847, including 539 living on the street.

When those numbers were released in May, Mr. Robertson called them "disappointing," but he noted that the city had offered "20 sites of city-owned land worth more than $250-million" for housing and insisted that the city was doing its part.

Anti-poverty activists have used tent encampments several times in recent years to push for more social housing.

During the Olympics in 2010, a tent city sprung up in the exact same spot, which was then owned by Concord Pacific Developments, but was temporarily leased to the city's Olympic committee. More than 100 homeless people stayed there in an attempt to push for a national affordable-housing strategy.

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In July, 2014, a tent city sprung up in Oppenheimer Park, also in the Downtown Eastside, in another effort to raise awareness of the city's high-cost housing crisis. At its high point, it was filled with 200 tents, and potentially twice that number of people. It continued for a few months until it was shut down by the city that fall, citing bylaw infractions as well as health and safety concerns. A man was discovered dead in the final days of the Oppenheimer camp.

Earlier this year in Victoria, a camp was set up, again to denounce the lack of affordable housing. After more than half a year, the B.C. Supreme Court called for it to be dismantled. Throughout its existence, the site was overshadowed with concerns about violence and drug use.

At 58 West Hastings, the Vancouver fire department has been monitoring the camp and has flagged zero safety issues to date.

Vancouver police are also keeping an eye on the situation. Police spokesman Brian Montague said there have been no major problems, but officers are standing by in the area to address any concerns of local businesses and residents or those in the camp.

"We have safety meetings for the new people – it is an open discussion, whatever problems anyone has, we address it and work it out as a community and go from there," said Martin Steward, 44, who has been staying in the tent city since the weekend.

He said there is still space for a few more tents – and 15 people are waiting to move in – but not many more before the site will start to violate safety regulations with regards to the required distance between each tent.

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When space does fill up, Mr. Steward is not sure what will happen next.

"We're hoping they are going to understand the need for social housing. That's the whole point of the demonstration," he said. "This space has just been sitting here doing nothing and we'd like to live here, we'd like to have social housing here."

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