Red tents provide shelter before the storm 

Riddled with drug abuse, violence, and prostitution, many of the homeless shelters currently operating in the greater Vancouver area are in a less than ideal state. Coupled with a lack of adequate housing numbers to accommodate the estimated three thousand, “visible homeless,” inhabiting our city, this has brought considerable attention to the issue of homelessness in the anticipatory lead-up to the 2010 Olympic Games.

Clad in a grimy pair of khakis and torn track jacket, a man who solely identified himself as Jay embodies the impoverished and beleaguered citizens who comprise this statistic. Offering his own opinion of government tactics in relation to homelessness, he wryly states, “They just want us out of their way … they want to put you somewhere where no one’s going to talk to you or take pictures of you.” This statement echoes the sentiments of some Vancouver residents who believe that the rolling economic might of the Olympics will sweep aside arguably more pressing social issues.

However, estimates provided by the Citywide Housing Coalition place the number of beds available at three hundred and forty below the requisite amount to house Vancouver’s homeless prior to the expected influx during the Olympics. As such, it has been suggested that providing housing for all is not possible, regardless of the motive.

Pivot Legal Society, in conjunction with the Coalition, has decided to use the increased focus of the global media on Vancouver during the month of February to spur the government into action on the issue of social housing.

Pivot has launched the Red Tent program, wherein participants can sponsor a red tent emblazoned with social rights slogans such as, “Housing is a Right,” to draw attention to the true size of the homeless community during and after the Olympics. As well as distributing these tents to members of the aforementioned community, the staff at Pivot offer a range of items and activities that one can take up to support their cause. These include hanging banners with slogans akin to those on the tents, sleeping in tents as a show of solidarity, petitioning the government for establishment of a comprehensive social housing policy, and creating public art in keeping with the cause.

Presently, their aim is to distribute a first run of 500 tents, and base further initiatives on the successes of the inaugural wave of red they hope to see on the streets of East Vancouver.

This campaign is modeled after a similar initiative taken by a French citizen named Augustin Legrand, who strove to change the lives of the homeless population of his own nation in 2006. He formed a society called Les Enfants De Don Quichotte, a group of committed activists, who established an encampment composed entirely of red tents along the Canal St. Martin in Paris. In time, coupled with the use of viral videos and a blog as promotional tools, this campaign forced the French government to  construct adequate low income housing in their cities. Here in British Columbia, the members of Pivot Legal Society hope to elicit a similar response.

Although Les Enfants faced the contentious issue of the legality of their demonstrations, the machinations of the staffers at Pivot have been lent a helping hand by the case of Victoria City v. Adams, a recent legal battle surrounding the erection of a tent city in a public park. The justices found that it was unconstitutional to prevent homeless citizens from erecting temporary overhead shelters if there were not adequate facilities available elsewhere.

In light of this, so long as there remains a disparity of hundreds of beds between the available accommodation and the number of homeless residents, the erection of the tents can proceed in accordance with the law.

Laura Stannard, a member of the Citywide Housing Coalition, spoke of the origins of Vancouver’s difficulty with homelessness. “Back in the nineties, the Tory government under Brian Mulroney cancelled the social housing program ... and ever since then we’ve been paying lower taxes, which is about all you can ever get people up in arms about.”

This policy shift has created a dearth of funding for social programs, which Stannard identifies as the main contributing factor in the lack of affordable housing. “Starting from the fifties, and moving into the sixties and seventies, we were building [hundreds of] units of family housing a year,” asserted Stannard, but nowadays, “we have no social housing program ... we are the only Western industrialized nation that doesn’t.”

She pins her hopes in large part on Bill C-304, the piece of legislation put forward by East Vancouver MP Libby Davies, which aims to “bring all levels of government together to increase safe, affordable housing across Canada.” This Bill aims to establish the first comprehensive social housing strategy since the 1990s, which Stannard believes will allow, “effective planning of affordable inclusive communities ... which [are composed of] single units, units for couples, and family units.” In Stannard’s experience dealing with the homeless community in Vancouver, “some people have a difficult time sharing space with others, in terms of sharing bathrooms and meals, it’s too much ... we need self contained single unit housing.”

As to the long term plan of the Red Tent program, Stannard speculates that the flimsy habitations will remain in use, “for as long as [they] are needed,” or until policy shifts are brought into effect on the part of the government. However, on the subject of undoing the funding cuts wrought by Mulroney over a decade ago, she admits that, “[she doesn’t] think that you could ever win an election with a party proposing higher taxes,” no matter who the beneficiaries may be.

// Max MacKay,

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