Some residents of Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood are threatening a tax revolt over a growing homeless camp in a nearby park.
There are up to 350 tents in Strathcona Park, the latest iteration in a years-long string of homeless camps in the city.
Lawyer and Strathcona resident Jamie Maclaren says people in the neighbourhood feel abandoned by their elected leaders.
“We’re grasping at last straws at this point and trying to think of different strategies for compelling the city and all levels of government to do right by the city,” he told Global News.
“That strategy basically involves us withholding our property tax payments until such time as governments meet our demands.”
Maclaren said all levels of government need to come to the table in good faith and find a new, supported location for the camp — including possible sites in Strathcona.
As the encampment grows, residents are beginning to feel unsafe in their neighbourhood, according to Strathcona Residents Association (SRA) vice-president Katie Lewis.
Residents of Strathcona, which sits on the edge of the Downtown Eastside, have long been sensitive to the issue of homelessness, Lewis says, but things have changed recently.
“I love Strathcona, this is my community and I care deeply for it. But I would say things have taken a troublesome shift in … the last year or so. We’re seeing a lot more attempted break-ins, we’re seeing property theft, we’re hearing of assaults … we’re hearing of human feces on our kids’ playgrounds.”
“My neighbours across the alley yesterday, two of them, someone tried to bash down their front door. This is the reality right now.”
The SRA is not leading the tax revolt movement, but Lewis said she knows of at least 30 neighbourhood residents who say they’ll withhold property taxes until all three levels of government come up with a plan to address the camp.
Lewis said she’s also heard from resident groups in Yaletown and Crosstown considering similar actions.
Camp organizers have repeatedly said they do not want to be living in the park, and have called for a government-sanctioned “Canadian refugee camp” with wraparound services.
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On Tuesday, residents held a press conference where they called for housing.
“None of us have ever asked for parks that we want to camp in. It’s housing. And I don’t really think it’s that unreasonable of a request,” camp resident Angela said.
“No one has ever even communicated what subsidized housing is, or that it’s an option, that people need to go about themselves to find the organizations that supply them.”
The encampment lies in Vancouver Park Board jurisdiction, and while the board has passed a bylaw regulating overnight camping, it is not expected to enforce it in the park.
Vancouver City Councillor Pete Fry, himself a Strathcona resident, said he understands his neighbours’ frustrations.
“As a resident, I totally get it … as a city councillor I recognize we have a lot of struggles with our own budget right now, and if everybody who didn’t like something that was going on in the city refused to pay their taxes it wouldn’t be a tenable position,” he said.
However, Fry noted the current situation in the park is itself untenable, and the government impasse is preventing city staff from getting into the park to assess “who’s homeless, who’s partying, who’s running chop shops.”
Fry is calling on the province to speed up plans for “navigation centres,” based on a San Francisco model, that would help homeless people transition into supportive housing.
“We have some suitable locations under the provincial control that we could actually do these large, football field-sized tents that provide people the opportunity to bring in their tents, their pets, their partners, their carts, what have you, and then working together to find the wraparound services and supports to get where they need to go,” Fry said.
The province committed funding for two navigation centres in the February budget.
Fry says a vacant lot intended as the future site of St. Paul’s Hospital could be a potential location.
In the meantime, Lewis said the SRA is continuing to work with people living in the camp, who she said are also Strathcona residents.
But she said something needs to change.
“People are feeling that the current encampment at Strathcona Park is positioning homeless activists against government,” she said.
“However the Strathcona community is the collateral damage.”