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Tent City at a Glance

by Ben Amundson




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This piece is a collection of thoughts, stories, meanings and critiques expressed by the supporters of Tent City. Keep in mind no one speaks on behalf of the entire community.


The money has been spent on the Olympics, now what?

“The government’s proven its ability to spend money and do things quickly when it feels the rush. So we’re asking why not view the issue of homelessness in the same way you view sports. They’re running a deficit but it doesn’t mean there’s no money they can find to build homes. The provincial government has $250 million set aside in a housing reserve that they’re not spending.”

- Maxim Winther of VanAct!


How does Tent City contrast the City of Vancouver?

“Here you’ve got privileged people working in the interest of oppressed peoples whereas outside of Tent City you’ve got privileged people working for themselves and ignoring the fact that oppression is happening.”

- Yifan Lee of Food not Bombs


How do processes enacted in Tent City counter the process of gentrification?

“Taking over public space that would normally be built into a condo and reclaiming that space is usually symbolic of processes that counteract the process of gentrification. We don’t often have control over what gets built. I think a lot of people don’t think about that. You do have control. This space here doesn’t have to be condos, it could be social housing. And look at how many people can live here on their own without the government saying we can be here. One of the ways this action will be effective is starting to bring in more social housing to the DTES.”

- Whitney Griswold of VanAct!


Some oppose an increase in welfare and minimum wage given the rationale that some may take advantage of government funds to fuel addictions, what is your response?

“Who says the government is not abusing the system? They give themselves a raise each year and they ain’t doing nothing new. Each year they line their own pockets. They ain’t doing nothing for this part of the city which is the poorest part of Vancouver. They’re only helping themselves, the rich community. They need to come down here and invest in us so that we can help ourselves and be a less burden on the taxpayers if we can look after ourselves and contribute to the debt that’s being brought by this 2010 Olympics because the tax payers are going to be paying through the nose for the next 20 or 30 years.

There’s a lot of people here they’re just waiting to at least have the opportunity to work. But if you don’t have no clothes, if you don’t have no toothbrush to brush your teeth, maybe your teeth are rotten, falling out how are you gonna go for an interview? Whose gonna hire you if you don’t look up to par? Nobody. So that requires more money. That requires the government getting their act together and saying yes. Those are somebody’s people, let’s take care of them.”

- Elaine Durochur of the Power to Women Group from the DTES Women’s Centre


Poverty is a relative term and homeless is major part of every urban centre, how does this one action fulfill the goal of ‘taking real action to end homelessness’?

“Ending homelessness is just as much of a process as ending gentrification, so it’s not going to happen with one action. You can’t have the defeatist perspective. You have to approach it from the perspective that you actually can. You have to realize that the people who live down here have been systematically marginalized and excluded for hundreds of years. There’s been at least a 100% increase in homelessness because of the Olympics and that’s not because people are making that choice. People have been pushed out of their homes. We can absolutely do something about that.”

- Whitney Griswold of VanAct!


What is the most interesting story to come out of Tent City?

“As a legal observer it is my position to be a legally neutral set of eyes on politically contentious situations. I volunteered my night because I am concerned that the truth is not always expressed in court when two sides of a conflict present contrasting stories. It was about 2am when I stood outside the front entrance of Tent City watching a potential assault situation unfold. The political success of Tent City was in jeopardy. A tall, built man walked up to the gate, clearly intoxicated. He quickly began to yell at the small crowd gathered outside upon being denied access to the City that is free to everyone. In this case, the City does not allow drinking or being drunk on premises. He was upset and gave the crowd a mouthful for awhile until a small woman had heard enough. “You little cocksucker, shut your fucking mouth before I kick it to the curb!” she exclaimed. A long list of profanities exploded into the street as the two jawed back and forth. Some stepped in between them. The woman decided that a boxing match was in order as she was a trained boxer. He was more than obliged as he stepped into boxing stance. At this point I stepped in and told the man that the cops would be here in minutes if he decided to strike the woman. He heard me but was clearly angry about the being called such nomenclatures by the woman. So he took of his belt and snapped it in the air. The woman did the same. Both were heated. She clearly loved every minute as far as I could tell by the smirk on her face. Just as it seemed the confrontation couldn’t continue any further without a violent situation unfolding, the words and bodies of the onlookers finally got through. The man backed down as the woman stepped off after holding her ground. A sign of relief went through the crowd. In the case, the group was not immobilized by the by-stander effect (where one person suffers a robbery while many people continue about their business). The woman who provoked the man made comments such as this is proof that women can stand up for themselves. Others thought she should have let the men dismiss him quietly with causing such a volatile situation. Either way, by the time I collected by my thoughts, I looked over to see the two supposed enemies standing next to each other joking, laughing, having a good time.”

- Ben Amundson of Legal Observers


How difficult is it to organize hundreds of autonomous individuals into uniting for one common pro-equity goal?

“Let’s do a tent city. The concept sounds great. Then you start thinking you know where are we gonna do it? How we gonna get there? Where are we gonna do it? How do the practicalities get set up? As you start working that out as a group and you have processes whereby you listen to people, their ideas, it takes a long time to filter that into some kind of coherent strategy. Not coherent in the sense that it’s restrictive but that it’s got a focus and it’s also flexible, you know you’re going to have to be dealing with factors you can’t predict. So how do you make sure you have the things in place that you can control and then set up structure loose enough to adjust to what you can’t control?

Well building towards a strategy that is flexible but open to contingency but as inclusive as possible in terms of welcoming participation in a variety of ways. “

- Dave Diewert of Streams of Justice


The protestors and creators of Tent City are not incapable of self-critique however:

How valid are the police brutality claims and supporting by-laws?

You have to have all the facts. The same people that complained about a man freezing on a street in Hastings where demanding to know why the police did not get the person in forcibly. It’s because they can’t. If you find a person on crystal meth on a frozen sidewalk and you phone the ambulance and it’s there ready to take him into the hospital and the person says no there’s nothing that can be done.

The Assistance to Shelter Act says that you can ask a person if they would like to go to a shelter. If they say yes, the police can drive them to a shelter. The people protested about that because it is impossible to know if people actually consent to that. But the alarm that I had was that a lot of us are old and senior citizens. We want to be assisted by the police. We could have a stroke and be out wandering in the middle of the street in the middle of the night wondering where we are because we’re all aging. My experience was that I had been assisted by the police to the hospital and they were quite kind to me. They did look at me like don’t go ballistic. They never mishandled me and said they would pray for me. 

- Anonymous DTES apartment-renting resident


What’s the problem with relying on others to look after you?

“What were doing is taking food that would otherwise be wasted and cooking healthy hot meals for people that may not have access to a real healthy meal but the fact of the matter is there’s so much free food available on the DTES that people don’t necessarily have to provide for themselves. They can be completely dependent upon these free food handouts. I’m not so sure that’s a great thing. I think what we’re trying to do here is get homes built and end the necessity for those support structures and that dependency but at the same time by continuing this we may be perpetuating that dependency. I don’t know if that’s such a great thing.”

- Scott Gambrill of Food Not Bombs


How is this community created?

“So into the empty space we emerged and quickly set up some tents and tried to demarcate possible communal structures then came the fireplaces that offer sacred and communal gathering space around a fire so things emerged into more than 100 tents in this site and people coming and going but people gathering and food being brought in on a constant basis and taking in the contributions and what is being prepared and offering it to people in a crowd and evening times of poetry, singing and conversation and all this emerging out of individual initiates and coordinated actions, security being important to create a safe a space that is beneficial and the medics create a sense that there is multiplicity of elements at work that make it feel that you can relax…

So a guy told me his been staying in the shelters, he told me he hasn’t been sleeping that well. He comes here, he sleeps in a tent and he wakes up and it’s a beautiful morning. It recalls for him memories of his childhood that are really positive. This becomes a space where things emerge that are really beautiful.”

- Dave Diewert of Streams of Justice


What’s the point of creating Tent City?

“This direct action, it’s more than a political statement because there are people living here because they feel safe and because they like it and because it’s preferable to a shelter. We’ve created a home for people here. We’ve created a community for people that’s an example of how people can come together and work and create something beautiful.”

- Yifan Lee of Food Not Bombs


What point have we made here?

“The political aspect, in climate that is very concerned about image and making things look like everything is under control, is to have this eruption. An eruption that crosses lines of legality and illegality of who owns this space and who occupies this space, these kind of eruptions of those structures become opportunities to say something strong. The point is for this action to bright into a light in a powerful way, or in as powerful as we can together, the realities of homelessness, gentrification and criminalization of poverty…

It’s also an affirmation of a community. Not to sit around and wait for the state to give it opportunities to act or set the framework within which ways action can take place but for the community to say we can do this or to take the initiative. The development of a community both of local residents and of allies in a unified action that we can come together not just stand for a two-hour rally, or something like that, but to sustain it in way of living together, sharing a space together, I think those kinds of things deepen the possibilities of increased action…

...The question is where do we go from there, how do we take this there, that’s another challenge…”

- Dave Diewert of Streams of Justice


What’s the point?

“On one hand the Tent City is a means to an end, to demand specific things from the government and society. But it’s also it’s an end in and of itself. It’s a communal space where people share, they come together they share stories, their experiences. The rent here isn’t astronomical, there’s no one barking down your neck. There’s no police harassment here, it’s a safe spot to come together, to talk and be human and it’s got a lot of potential to grow.”

- Maxim Winther of VanAct!


Why are you here at Tent City?

“I can’t speak on behalf of everyone or for the community but only for myself now, remember. The big thing is to learn. For me a great sociology experiment, you I know just sit down right in the middle of it and just look around and do an observational study. It helps recharge me. To say, how do you treat people with respect? What are you trying to gain from this? What I’m trying to learn is how to get along. How do you bring this group of people together? What a great experiment! Social anarchy, ok? This is what Chomsky, McLuhan, UBC Prof Neil Guppy are talking about. All those people that I worked/studied under, tried to understand now I get to participate. How are we gonna get these guys to clean-up? So I said ok well what’s my part? One thing I can do is pick stuff up. I can keep the place lookin fairly clean out there so that we have a better public image. All sudden I had people sayin good job, looks nice so it felt good. It also gave me chance to be on the front line. To interact with people, so when people would come up to me and talk I would have to talk back, to respond and try to do it in way that brings ‘em in…

…Right now I feel like I’m sorta at the center of the center of the universe because I really believe all the eyes are on Vancouver right now 2010 this is a moment of history. We can make of it what we want. We get a chance to make it be something that people say o those people made a mess that’s all they did or we can say look what they did they built something beautiful. This is all possible and I see these people tryin to do something about it but coordinating all these people we got great energy but there’s also people with mental here, eh? How do we incorporate that? How do we find a room for them? Us, me with my mental illness and their mental illness and build this into a beautiful place? Social anarchy. What my part was, I saw something I could do, went and did it, so I felt good about that. So there’s a piece of the puzzle, I’m sure there’s lots more…”

- Anonymous DTES homeless resident



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amund180 (Benjamin Amundson)
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