Tent cities are 'safest alternative for many': lawyer

Tent cities are 'safest alternative for many': lawyer

As people living in a makeshift camp near Ottawa's Bayview LRT station face an uncertain future, an advocate who has worked with tent city residents in Vancouver says the camps can provide things emergency shelters cannot.

"I have repeatedly seen how [tent cities] are the safest alternative for many people in the midst of a nation-wide housing crisis," said Anna Cooper, a Vancouver-based lawyer with Pivot Legal Society, which works with marginalized communities.

"They are spaces where outreach workers can actually find their clients and connect with them on an ongoing basis … They're spaces where people are engaging in harm reduction strategies with each other, and routinely saving each other's lives."

On Friday, the City of Ottawa and the National Capital Commission (NCC) issued a verbal trespass notice at the camp, where a fire broke out on Nov. 22.

On Monday, the approximately 10 people still living in the camp said they were given a reprieve from eviction, although they weren't sure how much longer the camp would last.

Cooper said while safe, long-term housing is ultimately what people want and deserve, she does understand why residents would resist leaving tent cities.

"What frequently happens to people is they're incentivized to leave a tent city through a promise of some kind of shelter or housing — that shelter or housing is eventually taken away from them and they still don't have a long term housing option."

Laura Osman/CBC

Cooper said it leaves homeless people with gut-wrenching decisions, with many people forced to give up all of their possessions or possibly part with an emotional support dog in order to spend a limited amount of time in a warm hotel room.

In other cases, people may have had a bad experience in the past at a shelter where they're now being offered a bed.

Fire risk not an excuse

Cooper also said she doesn't buy the argument that the risk of fire is a good reason to shut a tent city down.

"Cities tend to highlight fire safety as an excuse to displace people without taking care of any other safety needs ... What I think is important in these conversations is to make it very clear that homeless people are forced with weighing many extremely unsafe conditions on a daily basis," said Cooper.

Cities and fire departments should go into tent cities and have "realistic conversations with people about how they're supposed to stay safe in this weather," she said.

Pivot Legal Society

Cooper said she repeatedly hears that people should be grateful for whatever housing they're being offered.

"I think government actors need to be really careful about making homeless people look ungrateful and playing into this really stigmatizing narrative [of] 'Oh they're just rejecting our very kind help,'" she said.

"Often if you sit down with people and talk through why they're rejecting a specific kind of help, it's because they don't trust that help, or in the past they've actually been hurt."