photos: Photo of the original site of Portland's Dignity Village by Jason Kaplan, 2000..

Could permanent tent cities be a better solution than shelters?

Over 200 campers were evicted from 
a tent city in Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park last month, four months after the first tents were pitched. Another, smaller group of campers remains in Abbotsford’s Jubilee Park while they fight for their right to camp in BC Supreme Court.

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The situations facing homeless campers across Metro Vancouver have made news headlines for months. And ongoing fights for homeless campers’ rights to remain in parks make it easy to forget that six years ago, a notable piece of legislation about homeless camping already passed. In 2008, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled camping in B.C.’s public parks is legal if a person has nowhere else to go.

Pivot Legal Society lawyer DJ Larkin, who represented campers at both Oppenheimer and Jubilee parks in court, says the two cities’ bylaws contravene the 2008 ruling because parks in those cities close at night.

But the Supreme Court ruling doesn’t allow for 24/7 tent cities, either.

“[The 2008 ruling] says you can only set up a temporary overnight structure if there are not sufficient shelter beds available,” Larkin says.

Many campers at Oppenheimer and Jubilee have refused to use shelters for a variety of reasons. Shelters are less desirable than sleeping on the streets, some say, because they have prohibitive rules for guests; they can be triggering for their institutional settings; and they feel unsafe for some women, members of the LGBTQ community, and children. Plus, shelters are only open overnight, meaning residents must leave in the morning.

Earlier in October—before a 69-year-old man was found dead in a tent at Oppenheimer from undetermined, but
not suspicious, causes—two Coalition Of Progressive Electors park board candidates pitched the idea of a legal, permanent tent city in Vancouver to accommodate people choosing camping over shelters. Opponents in the Vision Vancouver, Green Party, and Non-Partisan Association parties panned the idea as a short-term solution that would limit park use for other city residents. Elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, Seattle and Portland have made tent cities work. In Seattle, Washington, Tent City 3 and 4 were established in 2000 and 2004, respectively.

They accommodate up to 100 people each. Set up with port- a-potties and 24-hour security, campers receive bus tickets and hot meals in return for remaining sober, non-violent, and willing to volunteer at the camps.

The Seattle tent cities aren’t permanent locations: both camps move every three months, rotating between church properties around King County, an area twice the size of Metro Vancouver. And they can’t accommodate all of Seattle’s homeless: in September, a man fell to his death on the freeway from a ledge where he was camping.

Portland, Oregon, has two permanent tent cities. One, Dignity Village, is a tent city on municipal property that has evolved, since its inception in 2000, into a neighbourhood of mini wooden houses. The other, called Right 2 Dream, Too, is a tent city on downtown private property established in 2011.

Wendy Kohn, co-director and producer of Doorways to Dignity, a documentary on Dignity Village, says there isn’t enough shelter space in Portland to accommodate the thousands of people living on the street. That makes Dignity Village, home to up to 60 people, and Right 2 Dream, Too, home to about 70 campers, essential for the homeless community, she says.
But it isn’t just about having a roof over one’s head with more privacy and fewer rules than a shelter, Kohn told Megaphone. Legal tent cities and villages create a sense of community that’s “really essential for both mental and physical health for people to get back on their feet.”

Pivot’s Larkin would never endorse people sleeping outside. But she knows until there is enough affordable, adequate housing in B.C., vulnerable people will continue to choose tents over a mat on a shelter floor. “Even two weeks [of camping] is quite a bit of time for someone to settle and connect with an outreach worker,” she notes.

With that in mind, Larkin wants city bylaws to change so campers have a safe place to erect temporary homes. “That might mean not prohibiting sleeping overnight, not prohibiting erecting structures,” she says, “but rather saying if you erect a structure on a playground you have to take it down in the morning because it’s a playground. Or don’t do it in a particularly sensitive environmental area.”

ABOUT THE PHOTO: The photograph above from December 2000 was taken in a vacant lot in downtown Portland. Pictured here, from left to right, are Alex Lilly, J.P. Cupp, Tim Brown, and Jack Tafari, some of the original founders of Portland’s Dignity Village tent city. Photo: Jason Kaplan.

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