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Vancouver tent city endures as city fiddles on ending homelessness

The homeless campers in what's been dubbed the "Ten Year Tent City" aren't going anywhere.

B.C. Supreme Court Justice Neena Sharma sided with the campers this week, refusing the City of Vancouver's application for an injunction to have the camp dismantled.

Justice Sharma accepted the campers' argument that their safety would be at risk if they were forced to leave. She also said the city failed to prove "irreparable harm" would result if the injunction failed.

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The property, at 950 Main Street, was designated as a social housing site in 1998 and has sat vacant ever since. The camp that occupies the site today was erected out of necessity, but also to mark the 10-year anniversary of a previous homeless camp on the same lot.

The city insists that campers are holding up the project. It needs access to the site "to test the soil," said Councillor Kerry Jang.

After nearly two decades of inaction, I wonder what the hurry is.

The Lu'ma Native Housing Society has applied to construct a 26-unit building to house low-income Indigenous tenants, but the application doesn't go to the development permit board until July 24.

The camp has remained – so far – tidy and orderly, stripping the city of its usual reason for shutting down similar homeless camps: namely, any threat to the safety and well-being of the occupants.

As with any real estate in this city, demand at the camp has outstripped supply. Organizers have had to turn people away. Passing by on Friday morning, I noticed that four tents now stood on the sidewalk outside the fence that contains the camp.

We've seen homeless camps come and go over the years.

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They often begin as political protests – the Woodward's squat in 2002, the Olympic tent city in 2010 near Science World, or the Occupy Vancouver camp a year later on the lawn of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

There are those, however, that spring up out of necessity – Oppenheimer Park in 2014, or 58 West Hastings Street last November. People are camping because sleeping outdoors is better than the alternative – a shelter bed or a room in a bedbug- or rat-infested single-room occupancy hotel.

All of them shine a light on an inconvenient truth in Vancouver: The homelessness crisis (amended to "street homelessness") is getting worse, despite repeated promises to end it by the Mayor and his Vision Vancouver-dominated council.

Mr. Jang would have us believe that, for people forced out of the Main Street camp, there are a host of alternatives available. "It doesn't necessarily have to be an SRO [single-room occupancy] on the downtown East Side," he said in an interview. He pointed to the nearby and recently completed modular housing project at Main and Terminal, suggesting campers could "submit an application."

"If someone is genuinely homeless in that camp, they would go to one of our interim sites, perhaps a shelter bed for a few days until we can find something permanent, do the assessment and start looking for permanent housing," he said.

The City of Vancouver's former advocate for homeless people, Judy Graves, who is now retired, said that without enough permanent housing, the exercise amounts to a game of musical chairs.

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"When they make room in the shelters for tent city inhabitants to come in, that just means other homeless people are forced to sleep rough," she said. "The shelters are already full. That's why people are sleeping in tent cities and encampments." Ms. Graves has not been replaced, by the way.

By refusing to grant the city an injunction to shut down the camp, what Justice Sharma has done is made the people who govern this place face their own failure. They haven't fulfilled their promise to end homelessness – street homelessness or otherwise. They boast about the number of housing units they've created, they lay blame (in some cases, deserved) at the feet of senior levels of government, and they deflect.

All the while, there are people who spend nights in doorways, under bridges, and huddled together in tents on an available plot of vacant land next to a restaurant serving up charred pork belly and foraged mushrooms.

In Charles Wilkinson's documentary on Vancouver's housing crisis, No Fixed Address, Mayor Gregor Robertson delivers the understatement of the year: "We're sliding rapidly toward having too much inequality."

Sliding toward? No, we're there, Mr. Mayor. We're there.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver.

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