Q&A: How one Vancouver tent city refused to be shut down and transformed itself
From Ten Years to Sugar Mountain
Vancouver still has a tent city, quietly going about its business on an empty plot of land next to the busy four-lane Powell Street overpass outside the Downtown Eastside.
Ten Year Tent City first opened up on a city-owned plot of land at 950 Main Street on April 28. It was quickly served an injunction notice by the city, which it won because the judge said there was no immediate need to start the project destined for the site—which was left to languish for more than a decade.
The tent city was named after another one that formed on the very same plot 10 years earlier. That one was in protest of the upcoming Olympics and lack of affordable housing for the city’s poorest postal code.
Shortly after the city lost its injunction in court, it signed a lease over to Lu’ma Native Housing. This change from a public body to a private landlord made it trickier for the tent city group to fight it in court. They lost the injunction in BC Supreme Court on June 26 and were given a 48-hour deadline to vacate.
Folks were offered shelter beds, but one of the camp’s major messages was that the tent city formed because shelters are not housing—and most tent city dwellers were escaping shelter in favour of pitching a tent.
Instead of waiting 48 hours to get evicted, the dozens of residents decided to pack their belongings into a U-Haul truck on June 27, and moved to Franklin Street and Glen Drive. The new place is called Sugar Mountain Tent City.
One of the first people to set up the Ten Year Tent City, and now Sugar Mountain, Crystal Cardinal sat down with Megaphone a few days before losing the second court injunction filed by Lu’ma Housing.
Megaphone: How did you become a part of this tent city, which is your first experience living in one?
Crystal Cardinal: My daughter and Gina were the first ones who started this tent city. They had come to pick me up. Then, we were setting up here on April 28.
M: Where were you living before this?
CC: I was homeless, going from place to place, living in shelters, staying with friends—on and off for two years. I was staying at the Cobalt. I only stayed there for two days then I got kicked out. They took my rent and my damage and wouldn’t give it back. It was $450 for my rent and I paid almost $200 for my damage. He gave me $100 back from my damage and said he’d keep the rest and didn’t really explain why or anything.
M: How long were you in shelter for?
CC: Probably about six months. I was staying at the Aboriginal shelter. It was fine but there was always fighting, and people stealing stuff. If you were under the influence of anything then they wouldn’t let you in. You just basically would have to sleep outside, with your stuff still inside.
M: Compared to living in shelter and in the streets, what’s it like living in the tent city?
CC: For here, it’s actually really good. Nobody bothers anything with my belongings. I can leave them here. Nobody’s touching anything. Everybody knows everybody. It’s like our own little community.
M: What’s your tent like?
CC: It’s packed right now (laughs). I’ve got my clothes and everything, I’ve got a donation of tarps and ropes and stuff like that.
M: When you opened up the tent city, how did you feel knowing that the city wasn’t going to be supportive?
CC: We were pretty much prepared. We had cops coming here every other day.
Some would walk right in and some would stand at the gate and wait for somebody to come talk to them. Then we had the fire chief come by with the rules and regulations and stuff like that.
We put rules in place and the majority of everybody here abides by them. And whoever doesn’t they get like three warnings and then they’ve got to leave.
We’ve asked about three or four people, mostly couples too. You know, fighting and that. We won’t tolerate violence against women, violence altogether.
M: How many people are here?
CC: There’s less than 53 now because once we got the notice, the trespass notice, quite a few people got worried and packed up and left. Some people had actually found places too.
M: What do you think about the second injunction, filed by the leaseholder of this site, after beating the City of Vancouver’s injunction?
CC: Nobody’s really been talking about it. I haven’t talked to anybody yet. I’m a little worried, just in the sense of where we’re going to go, how we’re going to move all at once.
M: Why did you set up at this location?
CC: Because it’s closed off, it’s smaller than the 58 West Hastings. It’s more controlled. It was the site of another tent city, which is why we wanted to come here.
M: What would you want somebody who’s never lived in a tent city to know about what it’s like to be here?
CC: Well, I’d like them to know that with our tent city it’s very clean, we keep an eye on everybody who comes who goes. The majority of everybody has first aid and Narcan training.
M: What has it been like to see so many people want to be a part of this community and watching folks work together to keep it going?
CC: It was rough at first, just getting used to it. You know, I started feeling more comfortable being here because, like I said, everybody watches out for everybody here.
M: How have you managed to keep it going?
CC: We have rules and most people follow them. People who have to keep an eye on their guests, no guests after 11 p.m. Keep your tent tidy, make sure tents are three-feet apart. No tarp covering over your doorway. If you smoke keep an eye on your butts and stuff like that. Then we have chores, somebody has to take a chore of cleaning the kitchen, cleaning bathroom, checking general area and checking in on everybody, see how they’re doing and where they’re at for safety concerns. Somebody could be doing drugs and we want to make sure they’re doing ok.
The fight’s not over.