The Encampment Wars

The battle over one tent village in a portside Vancouver park turned it into the city’s only fully legal tent community. What that means for the thousands of Canadians living in encampments nationwide.

May 27, 2024

Dave Bradbury was born in the early 1960s in Ontario and moved to British Columbia in 1968. There he grew up, married, raised three daughters and built a career as a unionized tradesman. In the mid-’90s, his wife died of lung cancer and he became the sole provider for his girls, then seven, nine and 12. He’s proud of the life he made for them, working on remote jobsites across the province. After his kids grew up, he met his second wife, Katherine, in 2012. They settled in Kitimat, on the northwest coast, which was booming due to a planned natural-gas facility, and where Bradbury worked construction jobs.

Kitimat’s major construction sites shut down during the first wave of COVID, and the couple were forced to look for work. The hunt eventually brought them down to Metro Vancouver, where they figured they’d have the most luck. But jobs there were also hard to come by—as was anywhere cheap to live. Before long, the pair were sleeping in a tent on a tucked-away part of Alexander Street, at the edge of the city’s poverty-plagued Downtown Eastside. They hoped their fall was just a temporary hiccup on the way back up. 

Katherine soon relapsed into an old addiction and, in August of 2021, died of a drug overdose. That day, Bradbury waited by her side for paramedics; they got her heart beating again, but only briefly. Everything was a blur after that. Bradbury moved into a shelter for seven months and became, in his words, “unglued,” unable even to visit a grocery store and feed himself. He bunked with dozens of other men, many struggling with addictions or mental illnesses or both. Bedbugs and lice were rampant, and he was only able to keep two bags of belongings. 

His fog began to lift in early 2022. He learned about a group of other unhoused people who’d started sheltering in tents at CRAB Park, a green space a few blocks away, wedged between the towering cranes of the city’s Centerm container port, the waters of Burrard Inlet and Vancouver’s downtown skyline. (The CRAB moniker comes from Create a Real Affordable Beach, a grassroots committee that pushed to make it a park in the ’80s.) In April, he moved in, setting up camp in a two-room tent which he later fortified against the elements with tarps and a canopy. 

Bradbury was quiet and guarded at first, but soon knew everyone’s name. Though he’d never worked in a kitchen before, he quickly remodelled himself as the camp cook, trading meals for bear hugs under an industrial-grade kitchen tent outfitted with fire extinguishers, stainless-steel counters and a propane grill—equipment mostly acquired via donations and grants from local nonprofits. Every day he assembled roast-beef sandwiches, fried up French toast, received donated meals and chatted with residents. By the time he arrived, CRAB Park was home to about 35 people, some of whom had more elaborate setups, including furniture, appliances and locking doors. But as preferable as it was to the shelter system he’d left, it was not an easy life. “I don’t recommend this for anybody, especially on the Downtown Eastside,” he says. “It’s a rough neighbourhood. You either become part of the environment or it becomes a part of you.” 

As Bradbury nears retirement age, he is homeless for the first time in his life, owing in part to the perfect storm of economic disruption that followed the pandemic, with soaring inflation and a real estate frenzy that spilled from big cities to small towns, exacerbating a crushing nationwide housing shortage. Many Canadians like him have been driven over the brink. In 2021, the federal government estimated that 235,000 Canadians experienced homelessness at some point that year, and up to a quarter of those people had spent time in the tent villages sprouting nationwide. Last year, data compiled from 72 communities showed that, between March of 2020 and December of 2022, the number of unsheltered homeless—those on the streets and in encampments—had risen by 88 per cent. The most common reason identified was not addiction or mental illness, but simply “insufficient income.” 

Dave Bradbury lost his construction job when sites shut down during the pandemic. He struggled to find work and housing afterwards and ended up living in a tent with his wife in Vancouver. She died of a drug overdose in 2021, sending him into a downward spiral before he reinvented himself as CRAB Park’s camp cook.

Alexandra Flynn is an associate professor of law at the University of British Columbia whose recent research has focused on the housing crisis. “We can only assume that whatever numbers we have, they’re actually double,” she says. Her work shows that besides being larger in number, the recent explosion of unhoused people includes a broader demographic than ever before: more families, more skilled workers, more senior citizens and more newcomers to Canada.

In any given week, some 150 park encampments are scattered across Vancouver, but campers in most are legally required to pack up and leave by 8 a.m. CRAB Park occupies a unique position in the city. In 2022, after the city issued an eviction order, Julia Riddle, a young corporate lawyer, brought a challenge to the province’s Supreme Court on behalf of the residents. A judge overturned the eviction, making the park Vancouver’s only legally sanctioned full-time encampment—the only place in the city where people can pitch a tent to stay, that can support semi-permanent infrastructure like Bradbury’s kitchen tent and that can reliably function like a miniature community. 

This small portside park has since become a focal point for tensions felt across Canada, as cities and towns grapple with the tent villages growing between highrises, under bridges, along riverbanks and in parks. Politicians in some communities have advocated for gentler responses, while others are taking less tolerant approaches, including Vancouver’s mayor, Ken Sim, who’s been unapologetic about aggressive clearances under his watch. And it’s in this city where the controversy over the future of encampments, which increasingly look like an indefinite part of our urban lives, is playing out most dramatically. While no one believes tent villages are a good thing, the debate is still raging over whether they’ve become a necessary one.

Encampments have been present in Vancouver for years, but the crisis kicked into higher gear in 2017 and 2018, when the city shut down the Balmoral and the Regent, two notoriously dilapidated single-room-occupancy hotels on the city’s Downtown Eastside. Though they were overrun with vermin and mould, plagued by intermittent heat and plumbing and disrupted by frequent violence, they contained more than 300 rooms between them. When the hotels closed, some residents were provided with new housing, but many were not, and much of the hardship and disorder between the hotels’ walls spilled into the surrounding streets. In 2018, tents began popping up in Oppenheimer Park, a one-block-square patch of green a few blocks away. By the following summer, residents there had created a self-governing community, with an overdose-prevention site, a ceremonial fire for Indigenous people and a meal-distribution hub. But as the camp swelled to more than 200 residents, tents encroached onto the sidewalks, and the city began moving people into shelters and other temporary housing. 

About 100 people left, and as newcomers repopulated the encampment, it grew more chaotic. Soon its reputation became inextricably linked to a string of horrifying incidents. On New Year’s Day in 2020, Jesus Cristobal-Esteban, a 62-year-old volunteer who’d cultivated a garden in the park, was beaten to death after refusing to share his beer with an unhoused man. In April, a couple who spent time in the park held a resident at gunpoint in a tent and tortured her for 15 hours. The victim arrived at a nearby hospital with every finger broken and her body covered in cigarette burns. The incident’s brutality cut through the COVID-19 news cycle, feeding into growing public anxiety around encampments. 

That April the province shut down the Oppenheimer camp, citing concern about a potential COVID superspreader event. Some residents moved to a parking lot beside CRAB Park, but were quickly evicted by a court injunction brought by the port authority. Others ping-ponged to Strathcona Park, a neighbourhood green space in a somewhat more affluent area. Like Oppenheimer, it was tolerated for a while—the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation, known as the Park Board, even provided showers and warming trailers. But again, the scale became overwhelming. By the end of 2020, more than 400 tents covered the park. In January of 2021, a Strathcona camper named Sandy Parisian was involved in a home invasion on Vancouver’s west side, during which a 78-year-old woman was killed. (He later pleaded guilty to manslaughter.) 

Public sympathy for encampments was collapsing. The director of one Vancouver municipal political party, the Non-Partisan Association, suggested residents “start harassing these lowlifes,” meaning encampment residents. A group called Safer Vancouver advocated for hardline approaches. In 2020, Dallas Brodie—a spokesperson for the group, who later campaigned as a Vancouver candidate with the provincial Conservative party—suggested on a local podcast that unruly unhoused people could be rounded up onto a naval ship and quarantined in the nearby Fraser River. “They can use their drugs and yell and scream and fight and do whatever they want to do,” she said. 

Mayor Kennedy Stewart had a difficult balance to strike between assuaging public anxiety and the hard reality that there was simply not enough shelter space—and much of what did exist was in dire disrepair. In 2020 and 2021, all three levels of government spent a combined $250 million to buy hotels as shelters, creating 750 more beds. The city gave the Strathcona campers until April 30, 2021, to leave; Stewart expressed hope that with more indoor space, the next homeless count would show improvement. The surge in encampments, he said, was a short-term pandemic phenomenon, caused in part by people being temporarily pushed out of shelters due to physical distancing rules. 

To some degree that was true, as cities nationwide were discovering. Most of the early municipal responses seemed to take for granted that encampments were a transient problem and sought to speed up their removal. In Winnipeg, the city installed ear-piercing sound emitters under bridges to bring down the number of complaints about encampments and fires. (The devices were recalled after public backlash.) The city of Hamilton gave 60 people one week’s notice to leave an encampment in its North End before workers tore down their tents, directing them to over-capacity shelters. Toronto was blindsided by the size and scale of the camps. In the spring of 2021, the city’s 311 line was inundated daily with calls reporting fires, garbage, needles and pests. In June and July, police mounted three controversial raids on encampments at Trinity Bellwoods Park, Alexandra Park and Lamport Stadium, where police and protesters clashed violently. In Halifax, where the homeless population had doubled in the previous 24 months (it has since doubled again) police moved in on four encampments, arresting protesters, deploying pepper spray and knocking down tents and shelters.

An encampment resident who identifies herself as “T” sweeps up garbage at CRAB Park in February. Along with cleanups, residents participate in regular safety patrols and other activities to keep order at the park.

By then, the encampment at CRAB Park had begun taking shape. It only had about a dozen people, including some who’d left Strathcona Park months earlier. But the city wasted no time getting on top of it—in July of 2021, the Park Board issued the first notices of eviction. 

Julia Riddle had been a licensed lawyer for all of four months when they first saw eviction notices in CRAB Park. Riddle, who uses they/them pronouns, moved to Vancouver to attend UBC’s law school in 2016—a year when an average detached home sold for $2.6 million. Even during law school they’d taken an interest in the legal history of tent cities, an interest that intensified during the COVID-era cycle of encampments and evictions. After graduating, they passed the bar and took a job articling for a corporate firm. They are adamant, however, that advocating for unhoused people isn’t a radical or unconventional act for a lawyer. “The Park Board really tries to make it seem like it’s all radical activists fighting back on these things,” they say. “And I’m like, ‘I have an undergrad in economics.’ ” 

By late summer, when Riddle became involved, the CRAB encampment had grown to about 50 people. The eviction notices posted in the park declared it closed to overnight sheltering and reiterated the Park Board’s commitment to preventing encampments “when there are suitable spaces available for unsheltered people to move indoors.” 

That didn’t track—in their short time visiting the park, Riddle had met people who’d expressly moved there because they couldn’t find shelter anywhere else. Those included Kerry Bamberger, a 46-year-old woman who’d been unhoused off and on since she was 13. Until 2021, she lived with her partner, Clint, in the Flint Hotel, a single-room-occupancy hotel plagued by vermin and violence, where she says she was attacked by another resident. CRAB Park’s open space, fresh air and feeling of community seemed like the least-bad of the options available to her. She was one of the park’s first residents that summer.

Kerry Bamberger moved out of a dangerous single-room-occupancy hotel to set up camp in CRAB Park. In 2021, she became a litigant in a judicial review that sought to overturn eviction orders against the encampment, partly on the basis that there wasn’t adequate shelter elsewhere. The B.C. Supreme Court ruled in the CRAB Park residents’ favour.

To Riddle, Bamberger’s story was clear evidence that there wasn’t enough shelter, or good enough shelter, for everyone living on Vancouver’s streets. And so Riddle marshalled volunteers, including students, a retired firefighter and a city engineer, to conduct their own investigation of available shelter space. They found that there was not only insufficient space, but spaces that couldn’t accommodate disabled people, or where couples weren’t allowed to live together. 

One line of attack would be to launch a challenge alleging that the city’s prohibition on daytime camping violated Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But that could be tied up for years in court. Another option would be a judicial review, and there was already precedent that could support it. Riddle knew about a landmark 2008 decision that struck down a Victoria bylaw prohibiting overnight camping in parks. That decision hinged on a demonstrated lack of other shelter options. Then, in 2021, a B.C. Supreme Court justice ruled against the city of Prince George, which had attempted to evict an encampment there. As in Victoria, the ruling found that because the city didn’t have enough indoor shelter elsewhere, the encampment could stay. 

Bamberger signed on as one of two named litigants, along with another camp resident, Jason Hebert. She took phone calls, approved paperwork and spoke to reporters. By the time CRAB Park’s day in court arrived in December of 2021, Bamberger’s health was failing; the physical toll of living outdoors for decades had manifested in a host of ailments. “I was actually in the hospital in a coma,” she says. “I never thought I’d win in court, against a small arm of the government, from a hospital bed.”

In January of 2022, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Matthew Kirchner rejected the decampment orders, ruling that the Park Board had to consult people affected. That April, the Park Board designated a daytime sheltering area in CRAB Park, making it the only place in Vancouver where camping was allowed 24/7. When rangers arrived in the park to deliver the news, Bamberger was out of hospital and back in her tent, which had been relocated along with the others to a small peninsula on the park’s north edge. There, the population would grow to nearly 100 people. 

Bradbury arrived that month and, in July, Sheena Derdak, a curly-haired woman in her thirties, moved in with her husband, Weston. They had fled a massive and chaotic encampment that had been growing on East Hastings, the neighbourhood’s main drag. There they had shared a small tent on the sidewalk that couldn’t contain Weston’s six-foot frame—his feet were often left hanging out the unzippered tent fly. It was a daily struggle to avoid violence and theft. “Out there you’re pretty much on your own,” says Derdak. “It’s a dog-eat-dog world.”

Sheena Derdak and her partner, Weston, arrived in CRAB Park in the summer of 2022 after leaving a massive encampment on East Hastings Street that had become overwhelming and chaotic. Derdak soon became part of the park’s routine, donning a high-viz vest one night a week for safety patrols and volunteering with an overdose-prevention program.

They left when they saw fire department notices warning that the encampment would be cleared. Anticipating the worst, they set up at CRAB. On the first night they kept a distance from the rest of the tents. In the morning, Weston went over to make introductions, and the new arrivals were invited over for breakfast. An Indigenous Elder named Walter became part of their unofficial welcoming committee and helped them figure out where to set up. Derdak was immediately relieved to have more space away from the chaos of East Hastings. She and Weston got to work building a little porch with a tarp cover.

The couple soon became integral to CRAB’s functioning. Derdak filled in as a volunteer with an overdose-prevention program set up by residents, which was funded in part by Vancouver Coastal Health. Once a week she put on a high-viz vest and circled the camp, visiting tents, looking for signs of distress or overdose. The night patrols also helped deter theft and violence. “That is the best form of safety we have going for us,” she said.

Dave Bradbury spent the summer getting his kitchen tent going. Meals often came pre-made from local businesses, but on the nights Bradbury was cooking, he aimed for the atmosphere of a family barbecue, grilling burgers or, on a memorable occasion, donated salmon with chili and citrus. Julia Riddle marvels at Bradbury’s temperament, given what he’s experienced. “What are the chances I would just be angry and bitter?” they say. “I’d never want to cook a meal for a stranger ever again.” 

CRAB may have been a small oasis, but elsewhere, the situation was worsening. The nearby encampment on East Hastings, where tents spread for blocks along the sidewalk, had become the scene of fires and overdoses, triggering frequent complaints from local businesses. In July, the city’s fire chief ordered tents cleared; when police attempted to remove some in August, residents and police clashed. Police found a cache of guns in one tent. In September, an encampment resident was threatened with a gun. 

Against this backdrop, Ken Sim, an investment banker turned entrepreneur, was mounting a campaign to take over city hall. A son of Chinese immigrants, Sim had launched a company providing home health care for seniors and co-founded a bagel franchise. In 2020 he helped launch a new, centrist municipal party called A Better City, pledging to run government like a company. Sim was candid about wanting to clean up Vancouver’s streets, and his law-and-order messaging drew endorsements from Lululemon founder Chip Wilson and other business owners. It also resonated with Vancouverites weary after years of battles over disorderly encampments. Sim promised, among other things, to hire 100 police officers and 100 mental-health nurses to tackle the crisis. He rode his safer-streets campaign to victory in October of 2022.

Attention turned to the East Hastings encampment. Sim said it had become a safety hazard, worrying that propane tanks used by campers could explode on the sidewalk. In April of 2023, police moved in, clearing out 150 people over several days at a cost of about $400,000. The sweep was sudden and the message was clear: you can’t be here. 

Four years into Canada’s encampment crisis, the early crackdowns and clearances now look especially futile. The number and scale of encampments is greater than ever; in Toronto alone, some 200 can be found across the city, more than double the number from only a year ago. Advocates for the unhoused say encampments provide dignity and relatively tolerable living conditions. They also believe they save lives. Opponents say encampments create squalor and disruption, effectively surrendering valuable public space in cities. 

Courts are now providing some sense of direction. Last year, the Regional Municipality of Waterloo attempted to evict an encampment in a parking lot near a transit station. But, citing the CRAB ruling, an Ontario Superior Court judge decided that the lot shouldn’t be cleared because the region’s shelter system didn’t have enough beds. A clearance would violate Canada’s constitutional rights to life, liberty and security of person. 

That kind of judicial gamble hasn’t always paid off, however. In Edmonton, the city’s official policy has been that encampments deemed “high risk”—
a definition that includes any camp with more than six people—can face immediate clearance. Last August, an activist group called the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights tried to use the Waterloo strategy, filing a lawsuit against the city claiming that the policy violates Charter rights. It failed. The human rights case was dismissed this January on the grounds that the activists didn’t have standing to represent park residents. In the two weeks following the decision, Edmonton dismantled nearly 50 encampments without notice in what lawyer Chris Wiebe, who represents the coalition, called a “scorched earth” response. 

Weeks after that, federal housing advocate Marie-Joseé Houle released her long-awaited report on the country’s encampment crisis. Houle has for years been an activist on housing issues and, in 2022, was appointed by then–housing minister Ahmed Hussen to the role of federal housing advocate, charged with investigating responses to the housing crisis. Her recent report calls for a national encampment response plan by summer, and she’s come down firmly in favour of the view that forced evictions violate Charter rights—as well as rights to housing under international human rights laws that Canada is a signatory to, including the United Nations’ International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. She also makes the case that the sheer scale of the emergency means Canadians must start reimagining how we think about encampments and the people who live in them.

“I grew up in a Canada where we didn’t have visible encampments,” she says. “When I started working on encampments I was thinking, Is the Canadian landscape going to be rife with something like a bunch of refugee camps? The thing is, they’re already here.” 

Rather than migrants displaced by war or natural disaster, she likens Canada’s encampment residents to economic refugees, internally displaced by an acute cost-of-living crisis and a housing shortage. She also notes that refugee camps are supposed to be temporary. But of course they can last for years, as long as the emergency that creates them, and Canada’s affordability problems appear only to be worsening. 

Some leaders immediately dismissed Houle’s report, including Alberta Premier Danielle Smith. “We’re going to ignore her, because, quite frankly, she’s wrong,” she told reporters in February. “It is not dignified for our vulnerable population to be victimized in these encampments. They’re being run by criminal gangs. They’re victimized not only by their addiction, but also violence, sexual assault, and we’re not going to put up with that.”

But Houle believes that a gentler approach can balance the needs of the unhoused with very real concerns about the proliferation of encampments and the maintenance of clean, orderly public space—and she thinks these strategies are gaining traction. In London, Ontario, where the number of encampments reached more than 100 last fall, tents now spread all along the leafy shores of the Thames River as it weaves through the city’s downtown. Last summer, city council voted to set up four service depots along the river, providing bottled water, meal kits, socks, soap, garbage bags and other essentials. The program ran until the fall and is expected to return this year as part of a more robust encampment strategy. In Halifax, the aggressive evictions of 2021 have given way to a more nuanced approach that seems to recognize the indefinite nature of the encampments. In 2022, the city designated portions of some city parks as sanctioned encampment sites and provided toilets, water storage and garbage collection. It is also one of a growing number of cities nationwide creating “pallet villages” of tiny modular shelters with access to municipal services. The rollout hasn’t been seamless; there are not nearly enough spaces, and some neighbourhoods have strongly resisted them. There have also been criticisms that, by formalizing encampments, they will start to seem like a normal part of Canada’s modern cityscapes. 

Of course, they already are. Leilani Farha is a Canadian lawyer and a former UN special rapporteur on the right to housing. Ultimately, she says, encampments are not a long-term solution. But she argues that the current crisis is not just a product of post-COVID economic strain, but decades of chronic underinvestment in housing and social supports. “We have to understand that our economy is producing homelessness,” she says. As long as that’s the case, Canadian society owes something to those left out. That means ensuring places like CRAB Park meet the same humanitarian standards as any refugee camp. This idea isn’t addressed in the recent court orders prohibiting encampment evictions, which include no provisions for governments to uphold living standards. 

Dave Bradbury prepared a dinner of hash browns and vegetables in March. The park’s kitchen tent, outfitted with a variety of donated equipment, including a propane grill, became a gathering place for CRAB residents during Bradbury’s tenure as the camp cook.

Once again, CRAB Park’s residents are attempting to forge a path forward. In December, B.C.’s Human Rights Tribunal agreed to hear a complaint that the city has failed to provide showers, accessible washrooms and electricity. Vancouver deputy city manager Sandra Singh countered that porta-potties and other infrastructure previously provided by the city had been vandalized. The ongoing case is yet another volley in the debate over what is owed to people displaced by economic disaster. As of now, most amenities in places like CRAB are still provided by donors, volunteers and residents themselves.

That fact was underlined on a cold, snowy morning this January, when a group of volunteers appeared at the entrance to the park with armloads of two-by-fours and other construction materials. They intended to replace a leaky, makeshift shelter, held together by tarps, with a semi-permanent structure. Somehow the city got wind of the plan, and eight park rangers were waiting for the volunteers when they arrived around 11 a.m. The two sides squared off, the activists represented by Fiona York, a support worker who’s spent years in shelters and drop-in centres on the Downtown Eastside. The rangers insisted that building a structure of any kind in a park was illegal. York called Julia Riddle, who challenged the rangers over the phone to produce the section of bylaw that prohibited it. The two sides quoted legal technicalities back and forth for nearly an hour, with some fire department guidelines and housing memos thrown in. The debate circled the same arguments so many times it veered into philosophical territory: what is a shelter? What makes one temporary rather than permanent? Does the definition shift under more than a foot of snow? 

Ultimately, although the bylaw was ambiguous, the rangers prevailed. This April, the city’s Park Board unanimously voted to change the parks control bylaw. Pallets, fencing, plywood, insulation and drywall are all now explicitly banned. The amendment also gave park rangers the power to take away tents that aren’t consistently occupied. Alexandra Flynn, the UBC housing researcher and lawyer, has said the changes could open the door to a constitutional challenge.

The CRAB Park encampment was showing its age by late this winter. Over nearly three years, it had weathered multiple eviction attempts, a judicial review, an election landslide, three harsh winters, 572 police calls and countless waves of new arrivals. As spring weather brought mud and rain, damaged tents lay flattened. Near the entrance, a wreath memorialized a beloved longtime resident, Mohawk, who died of a suspected overdose in late January.

In March, residents nervously awaited the next test: the Park Board had announced a cleanup. It planned to temporarily relocate residents up the hill in the park to make way for bulldozers to clear the sheltering area, which would then be covered in a bed of gravel. The city said health and safety hazards, like needles and feces, ruled out a resident-led cleanup. 

As moving day approached, stress wore on everyone, and small arguments erupted here and there. On March 25, blue fences separated the sheltering area from the hill. Outreach workers with clipboards stood on the sidelines as rangers surrounded one tent at a time, telling occupants to leave. Dave Bradbury struggled in his tent to get his shoes on as park rangers hovered outside. He had slept barely three hours, having spent most of the previous night working with other residents to haul the overdose-prevention tent, kitchen tent and hundreds of pounds of cooking supplies up the hillside, to save them from demolition. He even managed to rescue several mini-fridges and the gas-powered grill he cooked on. By morning, his back was in agony, and he still had his own belongings to pack.

This March, Vancouver’s Park Board announced a cleanup of CRAB Park. Residents were required to vacate for days while everything was cleared away and the sheltering area landscaped with gravel. Only pre-approved campers who were already in the park prior to cleaning were allowed to return. They faced new restrictions, including a ban on mattresses, generators and propane for cooking. Many have now left.

At the same time, Kerry Bamberger was beginning to panic. Ever since she’d put her name to the judicial review, she’d felt a tremendous weight of responsibility, as if the fate of the camp were riding on her. She worried it would be lost, and with it the precedent it had set. As more than a dozen park rangers and police surrounded her, Bamberger remained inside her tent for hours, shouting at them between sobs to stay back. She ended up being among the last to leave.

Deputy city manager Sandra Singh said that when residents returned, they would be provided with new tents, water and snacks. But the arrangement would also come with a fresh set of rules created specifically for CRAB Park. Everyone would be allowed a 10-by-10-foot plot. Propane and generators would be prohibited due to the risk of fire. 

The camp would also not be allowed to grow: the Park Board decided that only “intended users,” occupants already known to park rangers as residents, would be allowed back. No one else could move in. In early April, a few days behind schedule, the first campers returned to the newly gravelled sheltering area. Parking barriers demarcated each plot, and the entire place resembled a fenced-off parking lot more than a park. Only 16 people claimed pre-approved spots; the rest would have to find shelter elsewhere. Some of the campers who returned said park rangers also prohibited mattresses due to fire risk. Sleeping pads would have to suffice. 

That morning, Dave Bradbury stood on the park’s hillside, surveying the scene as a cold wind swept in from the harbour. Two affable-looking social workers from BC Housing approached. They told him there was a room at the Savoy, a downtown single-room-occupancy hotel. It was large enough for Bradbury and his partner, J.R., whom he’d met at the park. It had an older clientele and was less chaotic than many buildings. They would need to conduct interviews with BC Housing to get in, but it sounded like almost a sure thing. 

Bradbury was torn. He was tired, and stable housing was hard to pass up. But moving into the Savoy would mean giving up his kitchen, and he worried about the impact on the camp. Cooking had brought stability to his life and to the people around him. He wondered who, if not him, would clean the dishes. “It’s amazing how much work goes on that you don’t really notice unless you’re part of it,” he said. 

His decision was clinched, he says, when a city staffer promised the kitchen would go on. The city would even provide more supplies, including camp stoves and new food-storage containers. So Bradbury decided to leave. However, Fiona York alleges that days after Bradbury decamped, park rangers threw out everything, including the countertops, tables, chairs and even his spice rack. None of the new equipment promised has yet appeared. 

Within weeks, the encampment at CRAB Park had returned to a form of stability, though much diminished in size. From a distance, a passenger on one of the cruise ships that dock near the park would be forgiven for mistaking it for a pleasant municipal campground. Bradbury’s kitchen tent itself lay crumpled in a heap on the peninsula’s westernmost corner, a chill breeze blowing through its open, tattered flap. 

Elsewhere, the city is still playing Whac-A-Mole with encampments—including a resurgent Oppenheimer Park camp, which was cleared again by police in January. CRAB remains protected, but according to Singh, the city hopes to find shelter for all its residents by autumn. In mid-April, as the last of Vancouver’s spring cherry blossoms fell, Kerry Bamberger stood and stared across the waters of Burrard Inlet. Her shoulders were slumped, a hood pulled tight over her head. “I’m leaving too,” she said.


This story appears in the June issue of Maclean’s. You can buy the issue here or subscribe to the magazine here.