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Grounds for Disruption

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February 21, 2011

Grounds for Disruption

Tent cities evolve to bring politics out of—and permanence into—the housing debate

by Zander Winther

Last year's Olympic Tent Village in Vancouver. Tent cities have a longer history south of the border, where their function dances between housing stability and political visibility. photo: Murray Bush/Vancouver Media Co-op
The Olympic Tent Village was endorsed by more than 100 organizations and the residents of Vancouver's Downtown East Side. The occupation of the Vancouver Olympics Organizing Committee parking lot intended to illustrate Vancouver's lack of affordable housing while the city invested instead in the Games. Photo: Andy K Bond

VANCOUVER—On the anniversary of the 2010 Olympics, a second tent city will disrupt Vancouver. Like the Olympic Tent Village that occupied 58 West Hastings in the Downtown East Side one year ago, this incarnation may only last a few weeks. However, discussions have been initiated within Vancouver Action (VANACT), the primary group organizing the tent city, about evolving this tent city into a more permanent project, mirroring such tent cities as those in and around Seattle, Washington State.

"[Last year] we thought it would last a week, but by the end of the week there was a community meeting where individuals decided to stay until people got housing,” said Tristan Markle of VANACT. Markle was involved in last year’s tent village, and hopes to carry those lessons into this year’s project.

“Learning from that experience, we have to be prepared and anticipate that the people who need a liberated space might want to stay as long as necessary,” he said. Those who stayed and squatted 58 West Hastings eventually helped secure low-income housing for 35 residents of Olympic Tent Village.

When it was occupied one year ago, 58 West Hastings was an empty lot that the Vancouver Olympic Committee (VANOC) had leased from condo developer Concord Pacific with the intention of using the space for Olympics-related parking. This year’s tent village is expected to occupy a space in the now desolate and bankrupt Olympic Village, which has come to symbolize both the misplaced financial extravagance of the Games, and the city’s failure to follow through with its Olympic promise of more low-income homes.


Across the border in Seattle, one finds a history of tent cities that have survived in various forms for over a decade. In the late 1990s, Tent City 1, and then Tent City 2, were created illegally to address the growing numbers of homeless people in the King County region of Washington State. Both were opposed by local government and eventually shut down, but the dire need for such an establishment had been made visible.

Tent City 3 was created in 2000, but it was not until March of 2002 that its legality was made clear following a court ordered “Consent Degree” between the organizers and the city attorney. This “Consent Degree” established basic rules and a system of temporary locations on offered private land. Tent City 3 continues to provide shelter for approximately 100 people.

Partly in response to some of the limitations of this legal yet controlled encampment, Tent City 4 was created in May of 2004, with the intent of defying the “Consent Decree” by occupying public spaces and using public resources. It eventually transitioned from using public spaces into a system of staying on properties owned by faith-based organizations, such as parking lots. This project also continues to operate, with a population fluctuating between 50 to 100 people.

More recently, a separate project to provide shelter for the growing numbers of homeless people was created in the University District of Seattle. It was coined “Nickelsville” in response to then-Mayor Greg Nickel’s use of police to clear out homeless encampments, and specifically an edict issued by the mayor on April 4, 2008, that outlawed setting up shelter on city property such as overpasses, greenways and parks. The original location of Nickelsville was at 7115 West Marginal Way SW in Seattle, and was built in the early morning of September 22, 2008. This encampment only lasted four days, until police entered, arresting 23 people and removing the installed shelters.

Nickelsville stumbled through a few more locations before it found a more stable home in the private parking lot of the University Christian Church in the University District, a space made more secure due in part to great support by the local faith-based communities. This began a string of temporary locations for Nickelsville, sometimes moving to areas of King County outside Seattle.

Nickelsville built a list of rules that are largely self-enforced. No drugs, alcohol or criminal activity is tolerated within the tent city; any offenders risk immediate eviction. The entry point to the tent city is carefully monitored with an official check-in table. Many tenants take on roles such as security and “moving boss” to help ensure respect for the rules and oversee getting everyone packed between locations.

By August 2010, Nickelsville was back in the space it had occupied nearly two years prior, at the University Congregational United Church of Christ. While some locals were happy to have the tent city back, others recalled increased break-ins and other associated criminal activity. Church groups intended to mitigate the motivations for increased local crime by helping provide Nickelsville tenants with access to bathrooms, showers and other facilities. Nevertheless, wherever the tent city went, there was often local resistance to Nickelsville sharing the neighbourhood. The neighbourhood agitation, combined with a growing need for shelter, contributed to the push by organizers to re-envision Nickelsville as a more stable project with a permanent location.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn formed a citizen review panel in October 2010 to explore solutions to the growing problem of homelessness. It recommended the creation of a permanent tent city location. Such an initiative has been strongly supported by the organizers and tenants of Nickelsville, and is listed as a demand in a recent declaration endorsed by several of the organizations deeply involved with the tent city. Nickelsville presently occupies an old Lake City Fire Station, north of the University District—a location that provides warmth during the winter months. While this site continues to provide shelter for approximately 100 people, the community hopes a permanent location could accommodate up to 1,000 tenants.


The size of Nickelsville, and its long history, can be attributed to both Seattle’s large homeless population and also a well-organized network of citizen support.

A homelessness count performed in Seattle in the early hours of January 28, 2011, found 1,753 people in Seattle and 2,442 people in the greater King County area on the streets between 2:00 am and 5:00 am, while more than 6,000 others took advantage of available emergency shelters and other accommodation. Currently, Seattle has nearly 2,000 shelter beds and more than 3,000 in the King County region in total.

In contrast, Vancouver’s 2010 count found 811 people on the street and an additional 765 in shelters. Both Seattle and Vancouver are faced with dramatically increasing rates of homelessness.

“One study shows Vancouver to be the most unaffordable city in the world,” said Markle. “And one year after the Olympics, homelessness has tripled.”

Similar stories are told in Seattle. On January 10, 2011, at a community meeting on homelessness, Ruth Blaw, director of the Orion youth shelter, which is run under the umbrella organization Youthcare, explained that the organization had seen the use of its services double in the past 18 months, and they are no longer able to provide beds to meet demand.

The meeting was part of the University District Conversation on Homelessness, which convenes monthly at a local church or faith-based community center. Updates are provided on the most recent political news affecting homeless individuals, and representatives from local churches, synagogues, mosques and other groups meet to help form a unified face in tackling ongoing issues around homelessness.

The tent cities in King County have been able to depend on the support of such groups for logistics. The groups also play a crucial role in pushing back against government reluctance to make serious commitments. In 2007, under the pressure of these groups, the state government introduced Bill HB 2244, which prevented city governments from stopping churches from hosting tent cities, or setting a time limit of less than 90 days on the stay of individuals within the encampments.

A younger initiative, Vancouver’s tent city movement has involvement from its own faith-based community. One of the major support pillars of the Olympic Tent Village was Streams of Justice, a Christian social justice movement.

Dave Diewert of Streams of Justice offered a lucid description of the social mechanics behind the Olympic Tent Village in the second edition of Village Voice, the newsletter of the tent city. He explained that the political component of the Olympic tent village was a kind of “eruption,” a disruption of the status quo. This eruption “crosses lines of legality and illegality of who owns this space and who occupies this space...eruptions of those structures become opportunities to say something strong. The point is for this action to bring into light in a powerful way...the reality of homelessness, gentrification, and the criminalization of poverty.”


Markle sees the upcoming tent city as a similar eruption, explaining that one of its most direct intentions is “to bring the issues out into the open, rather than having them brushed under the carpet or hidden out of sight, so that people are forced to confront the issues.”

A similar phenomena was taking place in the early tent cities of Seattle, with illegal occupations in response to an acute housing crisis. However, Seattle’s tent cit[ies] gradually evolved, accruing stability. Nickelsville’s goal of providing shelter for 1,000 people demonstrates how the focus has shifted to providing a steady base for a many homeless people as possible.

The example of Nickelsville reveals an inverse relationship between permanence and visibility with respect to the issue of homelessness: as permanent shelter needs are met, political visibility goes down.

On the one end, tent cities that mark a large public event—such as the Olympic Tent Village and the tent city created in Allen Gardens during the G20 summit in Toronto, which lasted for just one night—act, according to Markle, as “political manifestation[s] that bring the politics [of homelessness] into the open.”

In the middle, more permanent establishments such as Tent City 1 and Tent City 2 in Seattle, while being illegal “eruptions,” also provide longer-term shelter. The state sanctions, or at least tolerates, tent cities that shift from one site to another approximately every three months, but their continual change of location, and all of the associated hurdles, help maintain public awareness of the ongoing need for housing solutions.

At the other end of the spectrum, tent cities with a permanent location and properly established facilities begin to blur the line between quasi-legal occupations and traditional homeless shelters. As Markle explained, forcing people into small shelters or scattered spaces throughout a city means that the problem of homelessness “doesn’t appear to be a political issue.” Similarly, once a tent city is located in a more permanent location, often in a low-income area far from an urban centre, it is effectively “out of sight and out of mind” for many city dwellers. However, Markle is clear to point out that “shelters are [important] emergency stop gap measures until real housing [can be acquired].”


The eruptive tent city is also “an affirmation of community” which may carry though to later incarnations, according to Diewert. The establishment of a tent city represents a refusal of citizens to “sit around and wait for the state, nor to give it opportunities to act and set the framework within which...action can take place, but rather for the community to say ‘we can do this’ and to take initiative.”

This perspective is echoed in the opinions of others. “The main point of a tent city is an exercise in self sustainability, self-organization, and community-building,” said Yifan Li of VANACT, who also helped build last year’s Olympic Tent Village. In a similar vein, Markle said the “hope is that the tent city is a solidarity action between folks who live in the inner city and allies city-wide.”

The strength of this solidarity will perhaps dictate the resilience and longevity of Vancouver’s newest tent city.

“Once a space is liberated...people will take advantage of that liberated space and create a community there, but one has to be prepared to support it as long as possible,” said Markle.

Whether Vancouver's upcoming tent city is the starting point of such a venture will depend on what unfolds in the ensuing weeks.

Zander Winther is a recent graduate of the Philosophy MA program at the University of Waterloo, and currently feels at home in both Vancouver and Seattle.

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Great article

I'm so glad you wrote this. I know very little of the history of Seattle tent cities. This really helps put the upcoming one in Vancouver in perspective. Keep up the good work! I look forward to hearing more!

I want to participate

Please also post any further details as you get them about the next Tent Village protest! I want to get involved!

info for vancouver tent city

to respond to alextse:



Interesting article.

I feel it is over conflated with Seattle.
Seattle has almost nothing to do with Vancouver, Canada.

Thanks for the article anyways.


I am doing a project on Hoovervilles for school and this article was really helpful.

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