Katie Lewis: Fights, drugs, and threats to our kids. Politicians do nothing as our neighbourhood spirals out of control

The residents of Vancouver homeless encampment "Kennedy Trudeau" say they won't leave unless a list of demands — including free drugs — are met.

This is a story without a happy ending. 

It began about two years ago when a small tent city popped up in Oppenheimer Park, located in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES). What started with a small handful of tents grew over 18 months until 300 fabric shelters dominated the space. 

Some of these campers were homeless. Others were homeless activists. Many more were among Vancouver’s poorest, dealing with complex mental-health and addiction issues. Some were criminals. Some came from outside Vancouver, drawn by the city’s many services for those experiencing homelessness.

The Oppenheimer camp was a disaster. It was the site of assaults, murder, robbery and sexual assault, including a particularly horrifying example where a woman was held for 15 hours in a tent, raped and tortured. She was burned with cigarettes and all her fingers broken. No one answered her screams. Despite such incidents, the campers argued that they had safety in numbers. 

In May 2020 they were offered a way out; short-term housing, generally in hotels, which some took. The park closed — a tall blue fence with spikes now encircles the grounds, which may take two years to fix thanks to discarded needles, shattered glass and damaged greenery. 

But the campers who didn't take the offer, and others, simply picked up and moved to a parking lot next to CRAB Park in early June. That didn't last as long. CRAB park, under the jurisdiction of the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, sought an injunction from the B.C. Supreme Court, and the Vancouver Police Department evicted the camp in mid June.

The campers moved on once more. 

This time, they settled in Strathcona Park — two blocks from my home. The volunteers and U-Hauls showed up on June 16. Today, almost eight weeks later, an estimated 350 people have moved in, and more arrive daily. They call it Camp KT — or Camp Kennedy Trudeau, named for Kennedy Stewart, the mayor of Vancouver, and Justin Trudeau, the prime minister.

Altercations with local residents are now a regular occurrence. Our children have been threatened. Drug paraphernalia is everywhere. Dog walkers have had knives pulled on them, and a drug turf war has already started. 

There has been no help from any level of government, other than endless meetings. My neighbourhood is just the latest scene of a maddening game of tent city whack-a-mole that’s been going on in East Vancouver, and our politicians have proven unable or unwilling to do anything about it. The progressive Vancouver Park Board, the only elected park board in the country, appears reluctant to disband the camps — even as the city's most vulnerable have been raped and terrorized within them. Sensing this weakness, some campers themselves are playing a game of squatters' hostage; they've made a list of demands in order to vacate their new site, a list that includes new social housing units, $2,000 per month in government assistance, free food, and free drugs available at pharmacies without a prescription. 

It is a hot, muggy day in East Vancouver in late July when I meet with Chrissy Brett. She cracks off the top of a Nestle water bottle and takes a long drink. The smell of cannabis wafts through the air. Campers wander in between tent lines. A woman wearing a red tank top, about 50 feet away, prepares a needle and sits back in a low-slung beach chair. Her partner, a man in his 30s, did the same only five feet away. I try to avert my eyes, which seems vpolite. 

We are in what has been dubbed “City Hall." It is a white tarp on the east-ish side of Strathcona Park, with about 350 tents gathered around the gravel oval of an old motorcycle track. Brett estimates there are anywhere between 300-500 people living here.

“There needs to be intentional places where this can be created and replicated in every community across Canada,” Brett told me. "There needs to be a place where people can be in the community. We believe that everyone is a good person and there is only bad behaviour and there needs to be an intentional community there to hold them up.” 

Pop! Pop! Pop! 

A sound like gunfire interrupts our chat. Veronica Butler, the tent city’s elder, a small but powerful Anishinaabe woman, looks at me. 

“Probably a bear-banger,” she says. These flares pop off at all hours in Vancouver these days. They are allegedly used to let drug dealers know there are police nearby. I later confirm with the Vancouver police that Butler is right. It was a flare gun.

It is 5:30 p.m. on a Thursday.

After the horrifying rape and assault in Oppenheimer Park, Vancouver residents learned more about what had been going on inside the camp. The victim, after escaping her captors, was taken to an emergency hotel operated by Atira Women's Resource Society. Atira’s CEO Janice Abbott reluctantly released a statement about the violence women faced at Oppenheimer. After stressing that her organization “fully supports and recognizes the importance of the protest at Oppenheimer Park, and people’s right to safe, adequate and affordable housing,” Abbott continued, “Over the past year, women have shared devastating stories about the violence they experience in the park. These include stories of rape, sexual assault, assault, being robbed, threatened, and coerced into doing things they have no interest in doing … We have witnessed women’s injuries including slashings, blunt trauma (e.g. assault with a baseball bat) and other forms of physical assault.”

The neighbourhood had enough. By May 2020, the province had as well, and offered short-term housing to every camp resident. Some took the housing, but much of the camp just moved, and then moved again. Now they’re in my neighbourhood.

Why here? The campers were almost certainly told that they would find a safe harbour. Like Oppenheimer Park, Strathcona Park is overseen by the Vancouver Park Board, which has been clear that there is no need for the campers to move along, unless they have a place to go. The board has previously voted against seeking injunctions to remove campers. Vancouver is a deeply progressive city, and the park board seems sympathetic to the campers' cause. 

And as the parks are overseen by the park board, the City of Vancouver insists it does not have jurisdiction to remove the campers — though they are certainly using the opportunity to push the federal government for more money for housing. Meanwhile, the British Columbia NDP government recently announced a 60-bed 24-hour centre aimed at providing services to homeless people — which could, hypothetically, address some of the problem, except that the centre won't be available until spring of next year.

There are beds available in local shelters. The rules — no guests, no pets and no drugs on premise — mean that few take them. Most of the residents of Camp KT prefer to camp.

In the total absence of meaningful help from our elected leaders, our neighbourhood residents’ association has been left to deal with this as best we can. 

When I joined the Strathcona Residents Association as vice-chair, I just wanted to get out of the house, leave my twins at home, and argue about where to put park benches. Instead I am witnessing a fight between homeless activities and paralyzed governments during a pandemic. I’ve written hundreds of emails, I’ve left so many voice messages I start to lose my voice. I’ve heard from more than 200 residents. I thank God my name is Katie and not Karen. The jokes, I’m sure, would be too easy. 

Something could be done if the political will were there. It isn’t.

I've met with Chrissy Brett many times. She was born into the Nuxalk Nation, along B.C.’s central coast. Her niece was murdered in the DTES. Brett was adopted by white parents during the Sixties Scoop. She has told me about her childhood, and credits growing up in both the white and Indigenous worlds with giving her a skillset that not many people have. 

“I’m able to work in both worlds and I understand both systems,” she said. “It helps.” 

Brett is a homeless activist. She’s helped to establish multiple tent cities over the years in Victoria, as well as the one in Oppenheimer Park. 

Strathcona is on the fringes of the DTES and is a mix of heritage homes and social housing units. It's the type of place where you know most of your neighbours, where people gather for morning coffee at local cafes and listen to live music in the park on weekends. 

But residents are now on the brink. "For Sale" signs are popping up on houses. Renters are getting out. Strathcona is by far our largest park, and many residents no longer feel safe going there. Some residents are threatening to withhold property taxes until the city takes action on the rapidly growing encampment. 

In the two months since the camp went up, I’ve dutifully filled a spreadsheet of all the things that are reported to the residents' association: residents threatened with knives, crowbars and even guns; two kidnapped dogs. Needles are a constant concern; the local childcare centre picked up 65 used needles out of its garden in one day. 

There have been other disturbing incidents in the past few weeks: a mentally unstable man picked up a young boy in nearby MacLean Park, shook him, put him down and then went on to pick a fight with a jet of water. An eight-day-old baby was threatened by man with a stick who threatened to kill and rape the child. On one particularly terrible day, a mother told me about a man threatening to gouge her child’s eyes out at the local playground. He’s four. On another, another mother found an abandoned handbag at the waterpark, took it home, opened it, and found a replica handgun inside.

In July, an irreplaceable Build-A-Bear with a recording of a Vancouver woman’s late mother was stolen from a West End apartment. The story of the theft gained international attention after actor Ryan Reynolds promised $5,000 for the bear’s return. TV host George Stroumboulopoulos said he would match the amount.

Well, within days the bear was recovered and returned: it was found in Strathcona Park.

Brett has claimed that these incidents can't be traced to Camp KT, or blamed on the camp as a whole. With all due respect to her, that's bullshit. I live here. I record it. I've seen it. Our neighbourhood has changed. 

Many of the people in Camp KT are suffering and need help. They come from all over; I've met campers from Halifax and Ontario. Many are Indigenous. They have told me about the intergenerational trauma they have experienced, the abuse, the addiction. Pain radiates from the tents of Camp KT, and fills the stories they tell me. I am grateful for their honesty. 

Pete Fry, Vancouver city councillor and a Strathcona resident, has also faced altercations with the residents of Camp KT. He says there is little doubt about the rising tension in the neighbourhood,

“The structure, or lack thereof, has created a lot of uncertainty about who is who and what the impacts are on a tight-knight community,” says Fry, adding that the tent city is posing challenges and he does feel frustrated at times. 

Fry said that the City of Vancouver has become a regional hub for homelessness, largely because other municipalities don't offer the same services. 

“Our goodwill is often taken advantage of,” he says. “We are disproportionately bearing the burden and at the end of the day it’s a provincial responsibility and it’s a national responsibility.”

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In early July, the campers issued a list of demands. They want a healing lodge and a longhouse in CRAB Park. They demand 10,000 units of social housing be built every year “until everyone who wants to be is safely housed.” Those units must be a minimum of 600 sq/ft with no guest or drug restrictions. They demand $2,000 a month in government assistance, as well as food.

“We demand a safe, high-quality supply of opiates, stimulants, tobacco, alcohol, as well as feminine hygiene products, pregnancy tests and birth control, diapers and baby wipes, and Hormone Replacement Therapy medications available at pharmacies without prescription and without cost,” reads a list released by campers.

It seems unlikely that these demands will be met any time soon. For now, life continues in Strathcona. We wait, we advocate, we talk, we listen. We go to the waterpark, we pick up needles, we take different routes. We are fearful for September when school reopens and what it will bring. My children will be attending kindergarten nearby.

There is a possible short-term solution. A new camp could be set up a kilometre away at a spot that currently houses a parking lot full of luxury cars. It's the future site of the new St. Paul’s hospital. The land is owned by the province. It could have tents, bathrooms, showers and food.

I’ve tried to convince authorities that we have a responsibility to house the residents of Strathcona Park. In an ideal world, no one would have to live in a tent, but in the short term, let’s do what we can do. This is a crisis and in a crisis you have to act quickly. We can, and we should. Camp organizers have signaled their interest in this solution, although many details need to be worked out.

Winter is coming, a second wave of COVID-19 is on our doorstep, and we need to do something. 

Thus far, no progress. Camp KT remains open, and it continues to grow. Someone will lose in the war between homeless activists and the government. In the meantime, Strathcona, my beloved neighbourhood, is collateral damage. Vancouver is dying and it does not have to be this way. But for now, this seems like a story without a happy ending. So we wait.

Katie Lewis is a Vancouver-based journalist and the vice president of the Strathcona Residents' Association. Her Twitter is: @kelewis. She can be reached here

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