Defiant homeless camp residents battle cold, storms, fires as winter approaches

There was a sharp increase in the number of homeless people dying over the last two years, with December and January being the most deadly, the coroner says.

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When Kerry Bamberger awoke in the middle of the night to large flames licking the walls of her CRAB Park tent, she was able to scramble out of the burning structure while her neighbours in the homeless camp attacked the blaze with fire extinguishers.

Today, her former home is covered by a partially charred, melted tarp and filled with her soot-covered belongings.

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“We’ve had a couple of fires. And the last one I barely got out of. I was really lucky to escape,” said Bamberger, who has lived with her husband in the homeless camp for three years. “That fire happened a couple of weeks ago, and it was really scary because there goes any attempt that we had to make winter survivable.”

The number of people who are homeless in Metro Vancouver has grown a staggering 32 per cent since 2020, and homelessness is a major challenge in other areas of the province as well. As winter approaches, there are increased concerns about how people living in tents will survive freezing temperatures, stormy weather and potential fires from unsafe heating sources.

Bamberger and her husband often try to heat their tent with a small fire in a pot they leave on a metal grate, away from clothing or blankets.

However, when their tent recently went up in flames, the couple didn’t have a fire burning inside and they have no idea what started the blaze.

They now sleep in the site’s communal warming tent while figuring out where within the camp they will live next.

“I’m a little bit worried about winter,” Bamberger said.

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Brittany Littlejohn, left, in the warming tent at the CRAB Park encampment. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /10103249A

Another reason to worry for people sleeping outside in the winter is the escalating number of toxic drug deaths, which the coroner said climbed to seven British Columbians dying every day in November. Fatal overdoses typically increase in the winter, so these new numbers could signal “another challenging season” ahead, Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said Wednesday.

On Thursday, the news from the coroner became even more daunting for people without homes: there was a sharp increase in the number of homeless people dying, with 342 fatalities last year and 267 in 2021, far higher than the recent annual average of 183 deaths per year.

Four out of every five of these deaths were deemed to be accidental, with the vast majority due to the toxic drug supply, and less than 10 per cent caused by other types of accidents.

“The winter is always really tough,” said Fiona York, an advocate for the CRAB Park residents.

When she first started helping people in homeless camps five years ago, society seemed shocked when they saw snow falling on the tents, she said.

“Now it’s kind of just commonplace. It’s accepted that people are going to stay out all winter. It’s going to be the third Christmas in CRAB Park.”

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The encampment at CRAB Park is on a small green space jutting into the Pacific Ocean, sandwiched between the Port of Vancouver and the trade and convention centre. The camp is often referred to as one of the few “legal” tent cities in Canada after a judge ruled in 2022 that the residents can’t be evicted because there’s not enough suitable housing for them.

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Chrystal Prasad with her dog Daisy May at the CRAB Park tent city. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

The cramped site is home to about 40 people right now; as many as 100 people lived there in the summer. It’s full of dozens of tattered tents, surrounded by a maze of extension cords and piles of residents’ belongings; a propane-heated ‘warming tent’ that serves as their living room; and a basic kitchen with a camp stove, small fridge and coffee maker powered by a generator. There are public toilet stalls across a park several football fields in size.

Non-profit groups deliver meals to the tent city, and there are boxes of donated apples and cucumbers on one of the days that Postmedia News visits. Vancouver health authority employees hand out hats and socks.

Through a combination of outreach workers and volunteers within the camp who receive training, efforts are made to check the safety of drugs and provide safe spaces to consume them in the tent city. There are harm reduction supplies at the site, including Narcan to reverse overdoses, and a health authority mobile medical clinic stops by weekly to monitor the residents’ well-being, York said.

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While these are all measures to try to keep people alive, multiple experts — including Lapointe and drug policy researchers — say an expansive and accessible safe supply of drugs is the only solution to reduce deaths in the midst of the toxic drug crisis.

York argues there is more that city hall and the Vancouver park board could be doing, as well, to improve conditions at the CRAB Park camp, which include not enough washroom and shower facilities, insufficient electricity and a lack of access to shade in the summer.

She filed a complaint with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, and on Thursday shared with Postmedia an emailed response from the tribunal that said it would fast-track her complaint given the approaching cold weather.

“In the absence of adequate shelter, providing some of these amenities that we talked about in the human rights complaint, like proper sanitation, is huge. That makes a big difference in terms of health and wellness. And access to electricity, like just the lighting and heat and hot water. All of those things can go a long way,” she said.

The park board and city hall were unaware of the tribunal’s decision to fast-track the complaint, but will “co-operate fully” with any human rights investigation, a park board spokesperson said Thursday.

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Brittany Littlejohn in the CRAB Park encampment. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /10103249A

The causes of Vancouver’s increasing homeless crisis are varied, but include: a high cost of living and a drastic shortage of affordable housing; a seven-year drug poisoning crisis and not enough treatment facilities; mental-health challenges that have intensified since COVID-19 amid a lack of services; and a mild climate and progressive harm-reduction policies that attract other Canadians to move here.

Brittany Littlejohn had lived in a ramshackle structure erected from pellets and tarps in CRAB Park, but a recent storm damaged it. So, for now, she sleeps with her dog Chaos in the warming tent, a large space with a couch, chairs and a propane fire that keeps it cosy and warm on a cool December day.

The inside has been decorated with festive Christmas balls and glittery lights powered by a generator.

“I like it here in general. I like everyone who is here. They make me feel comfortable. Other places, people make me feel like I shouldn’t be there,” Littlejohn said.

Life, though, isn’t simple. The bathrooms are a long way away, she said, and when it’s cold or wet outside that’s an unpleasant walk.

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Littlejohn has a room in a single room occupancy (SRO) hotel in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, but she insists the camp is safer and friendlier.

“It is more dirty in an SRO than it is here, and SROs are more dangerous,” she said, adding she’s been unable find safe housing.

“This is a small community. The people here are genuine.”

It’s “easy” to live in the camp, Littlejohn added, with meals being delivered, the health van checking on people’s needs and regular visits from programs like Sheway, which provides services to women who are pregnant or have children.

Many of the people in the encampment suffer from substance use and mental-health challenges, and there has been violence, including a murder and a multiple-stabbing incident.

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Sarah Upshaw with her dog Mr. Murder Beef. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

However, Sarah Upshaw, like Littlejohn, has chosen to stay in the camp on-and-off since 2021 rather than her SRO room because of the sense of community there.

“Have you not seen this view?” Upshaw asked, as she weaved her dog along a narrow dirt trail, between upended shopping carts, dismantled bikes, waterlogged mattresses and a giant Monsters Inc. stuffy.

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“Where else can you catch a view like that for free in Vancouver,” added Upshaw, standing on the edge of the encampment, which overlooks the Vancouver Harbour and the North Shore Mountains.

Outside the small spit of land where the “legal” CRAB Park campers live, though, similar encampments are routinely dismantled, despite the inhabitants often having nowhere else to go.

Earlier this year, city workers removed hundreds of tents from a DTES street, citing fire and safety concerns, but angering housing advocates. And in early November, officials targeted tents in the areas of CRAB Park that aren’t protected by the court ruling, arguing that bylaws only allow sheltering there from dusk to dawn.

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Vancouver police and park rangers in CRAB Park as tents are removed from the outer edges of the park on Nov. 15. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /10102928A

That same week, the B.C. government introduced legislative amendments to broaden the definition of acceptable shelters, in response to court rulings like the one in CRAB Park and to make it easier for cities to remove encampments. Activists, though, argued the government’s new version of “alternate shelter” could be worse than living in the tent cities, and in the face of that sustained opposition the government abandoned the proposed legislation.

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York is also calling on entities like the park board to, during the winter, suspend restrictions such as not allowing tents in public areas during the day. Taking down a tent at dawn, when it’s cold and wet outside, is harsh for campers who have nowhere else to go, she argued.

Until there is more safe and adequate housing, advocates will continue to make efforts to keep the people living outside this winter as comfortable as possible.

York has created a variety of online fundraising campaigns to provide CRAB Park residents with a Christmas dinner and gifts of “basic essentials” (more than $3,000 has so far been raised); an Amazon Christmas wish list of items such as hand warmers, socks, tents, tarps and sleeping bags; money to replace items thrown out when park rangers removed tents from the unsanctioned part of the park ($2,700 raised so far); and solar power for the camp.

She has also started a petition calling on the city, park board, province and federal government to allow campers to build so-called mini-homes on an “underused” parking lot near the camp.

In the meantime, Bamberger and her husband hope to build themselves a tiny, portable home out of wood pallets and other materials in the camp, which they would douse in fire retardant. She’s not sure it’s legal to create that type of structure inside the encampment, but argues it will be far safer than a tent.

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“We can fire-resistant and waterproof it far better than these tents. These tents are meant for summer camping or a weekend. They’re not meant to live in,” she said, as a cool breeze blew in off the Pacific.

“We’re just going to build it and make winter bearable.”

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