'Selfless' volunteer at Vancouver homeless encampment is fuelled by human connection

·3 min read
Residents of the Crab Park homeless encampment describe Fiona York as a 'selfless' advocate who goes out of her way to help others.  (Maggie MacPherson/CBC - image credit)
Residents of the Crab Park homeless encampment describe Fiona York as a 'selfless' advocate who goes out of her way to help others. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC - image credit)

For the residents of Vancouver's Crab Park homeless encampment, the name Fiona York carries certain positive connotations.

"Humanitarian," said resident Josh Beauchamp. "She's just a good person. She goes out of her way to come here, and stay here, to help people."

"She's selfless," fellow resident Clint Randen said on a rainy day in mid-December. "The only complaint I have is she should go home more … we don't want her to get sick."

Looking at her schedule, it's no surprise people are concerned for her well-being.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Depending on who you ask, York spends 40 hours a week or more volunteering at Crab Park. The days — or rather the afternoons and evenings when she typically works — are long, often spanning 10 to 12 hours, and involving everything from coordinating volunteers to advocating for residents and spending time talking to residents about their needs.

This is on top of her part-time job as a support worker.

About 35 people live in Crab Park, located east of the Vancouver Convention Centre on Burrard Inlet.

"I kind of decided I'm here until the end — until it's over," said York, whose work dates back to the camp's previous iteration in Strathcona Park. "Whatever happens here in this community, I just feel like I want to be a part of it."

In November, the Vancouver Park Board sought a court injunction to remove residents from the site. It has not yet been granted.

Connecting homeless communities

York's efforts have caught the attention of other homeless advocates around B.C. who say her intimate knowledge of the park's residents, as well as the systems perpetuating the issue, help her to advocate in ways different from other non-profit organizations.

Courtesy: Amelia Merrick
Courtesy: Amelia Merrick

"Work that the government used to do for social safety nets in Canada is now being thrust upon our non-profit organizations and our service agencies," said Prince George homeless advocate Amelia Merrick, who is completing a PhD on the changing roles of non-profits in Canada with the University of Toronto.

"They also don't have the political structure, oftentimes, to be able to make the kinds of changes that are required for something like the homelessness crisis," she said. "That's where I look at someone like Fiona and … she is just such an inspiration to me because she is able to speak up and she recognizes her position is to help the residents of Crab Park be heard."

Solidarity

At times, that means amplifying the message so it reaches homeless residents in other communities.

When a B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled in October that the Moccasin Flats camp in Prince George would be allowed to remain due to a lack of suitable alternatives, Merrick and York organized a video call between the two encampments in a show of solidarity.

"People often say homelessness is about choices," said York. "But when you see it's a systemic issue, it clarifies things … Knowing that strengthens people."

 Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC
Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC

It's unclear, meanwhile, to what extent the homeless crisis has worsened since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

In December, the City of Vancouver announced it was cancelling its 2022 homeless count, citing challenges from the pandemic and a need to minimize the risk of transmission. The 2021 count was also cancelled.

In 2020, survey data collected by volunteers over a 24-hour period in March counted 3,634 people experiencing homelessness in Metro Vancouver, up slightly from the prior count in 2017. That report also found people who identify as Black were disproportionately represented among Metro Vancouver's homeless population.

A provincewide count in 2018, meanwhile, found 160 people experiencing homelessness in Prince George.

Eleven years into her work as an advocate, York says it's the "personal connections" that keep her going.

"Sometimes it feels like the whole system or the whole state is going backwards and making things worse, but I do see some little things of progress," she said. "There are some changes that are happening."

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