Director’s Corner: Homeless campers must choose to stay warm or freeze each night, but we need real long-term solutions
I witnessed a fire at the Sugar Mountain encampment on December 9. Passing by, I saw thick grey smoke at the edge of the camp. Orange flames flickered and crawled up a blue tarp strapped against the chain-link fence.
It was late Sunday morning and the camp was quiet. I pulled over and ran in to sound the alarm. One camper had already seen the flames, and together we hollered for help while another passerby called 911. We hauled on the tarps and pulled belongings away from the flames—the person who lived there was not home.
I didn’t know what might be under the tarps. I worried the whole thing could go up and wondered if we’d be better off backing off, but the other campers forged ahead—it was their home, after all—so I joined in. I asked, “Where was the fire extinguisher? Where was the water hookup, the hose?”
One camper ran over with a small fire extinguisher, half empty. Another woman hauled a five-gallon bottle, the type that sits on water coolers, and pointed me to more, clustered in the kitchen area. These bottles, filled wherever they could, were the camp’s only water source since winter’s frosty onset saw the City of Vancouver turn off the hookup they’d provided since mid-August.
We each grabbed a jug of water and set about dousing as much as we could.
The flames were high at first, but to our relief, we managed to extinguish them by the time fire crews pulled in a few minutes later. They arrived to a smoldering heap of belongings. It wasn’t clear to us what had started the fire.
As firefighters examined the scene, I chatted with the woman who’d carried water jugs. I met her sweet and protective dogs. She said she’d been in the camp for some time, but didn’t know how much longer they’d be allowed to stay. She said she wished they had better systems for fires like the one we’d just seen.
I went by Sugar Mountain later to see her, but by December 20 the city cleared out the camp. I’m not sure where that woman and her dogs are now—or how she’s keeping warm.
I know that fire regulations are created to keep us safe. I know too that firefighters have incredibly difficult jobs.
Their daily work isn’t just fighting fires, but acting as front line workers in so many challenging moments, including medical emergencies like overdoses.
Heat sources and open flames near tents and tarps pose a risk of igniting fire, and regulations are in place for that reason.
But understanding a homeless person’s safety requires a broader view than fire codes. If you were in survival mode, facing down a freezing night, would you hold off on starting a fire for warmth for fear of lighting your shelter on fire?
Enforcing common-sense rules when a person’s daily reality exists outside the norm becomes nonsensical.
Homeless people are forced each day by their life circumstances to make impossible choices. And people will do what they need to do to survive in dangerous circumstances.
In the absence of big-picture solutions like safe, permanent housing, harm reduction offers the tools and knowledge people need to survive. In this case, harm reduction could mean offering fire extinguishers, basic fire response training, and water hookups to tent cities.
Harm reduction recognizes that common sense is situational. Municipalities and fire halls could use this approach to support people sleeping outside, while building toward long-term solutions.
Do you get that sinking feeling when you walk by a tent on a frigid January morning? I do. I hope we never get used to that feeling. I hope we never turn away from the discomfort it causes. And I hope it moves us to action, and to demand better.
Wishing everyone a 2018 filled with joy, community, and love. From all of us at Megaphone!
We hit our $25,000 goal and even exceeded it! This goes directly to fund Megaphone’s big plans for 2018. We owe it all to our supporters and donors! If you support Megaphone’s work and you’d like to contribute, you can do so online at megaphonemagazine.com/ donate, or by cheque made out to “Hope in Shadows Inc.” Thank you for your support!
Jessica Hannon is Megaphone's executive director.
Since you're already here: We’re working hard to create more low-barrier work opportunities while we build support to end poverty. The best way to help us create lasting change is by purchasing Megaphone Magazine every month from a vendor. Buying a magazine each month helps that individual vendor make ends meet, and it helps us build community power to make big-picture social change.