‘We’re just asking to be treated like people’: Homeless tent city resident describes life in the camp

A photo of Kirstine Fermin at the tent city in Strathcona Park in Vancouver.
Kirstine Fermin, a resident of the homeless tent city at Strathcona Park in Vancouver, guides The Pulse on CFRO on a tour of the encampment that has grown to at least 250 tents, on July 28, 2020. Photo: David P. Ball/The Pulse on CFRO
David P. Ball - - VancouverBC | 03-08-2020

VANCOUVER — The Vancouver parks board has caused controversy with a bylaw that would require homeless campers in the city to remove their belongings every day in the morning before returning, as part of regulations demanded by some neighbours' complaints who still say not enough enforcement is happening.

The Pulse on CFRO visited Vancouver's Strathcona Park, where a new tent city has been established — now swelling to at least 250 tents.

On Tuesday, residents of the encampment spoke out to media, saying homeless requires long-term social housing solutions, not simply regulations and restrictions on where and how homeless people can live, nor forcing people to pack their belongings daily at 7 a.m. per the July 14 vote.

They said that the city's promise that they were offering housing to anyone who wants it has not translated into offers of help in practice, according to several residents. One of those people, who insists she's never been offered housing despite the pledges, is Kirstine Fermin, who sat down with The Pulse on CFRO in a corner of the tent city.

She's a resident there as well as a cook and security team member at the Strathcona tent city. The site was erected after the Port of Vancouver obtained a court-ordered eviction of another encampment on its lands near CRAB Park in the Downtown Eastside earlier in the pandemic.

Before that, the campers were kicked out of Oppenheimer Park where they had established a months-long encampment, a permanent sacred fire and community kitchen, until that park was fenced off.

Fermin talked to The Pulse on July 28 about why she and her fellow residents want permanent housing, but also what the encampment means to her and why it provides essential safety and community.

Here are excerpts of her interview with The Pulse on CFRO's David P. Ball, edited for length.

DAVID BALL: Happy to be with you here in tent city. Tell me about who you are.

KIRSTINE FERMIN: I have two dogs here with me, and I cook in the kitchen in the mornings — I make everybody's breakfast and coffee.

DB: What do you cook?

KF: Usually oatmeal or omelettes, it depends on what kinds of donations we get the day before, or the night before that we can actually hold onto until morning because food goes fast here.

DB: What made you decide cooking was going to be one of your roles here?

KF: Also I do security here, because I took a security course when I was working for Atira (Women's Resource Society). So I have the training … Since I no longer have that job, it's definitely been a challenging time being homeless this time around.

DB: So how many times have you been homeless before, and can you remember your first time?

KF: Yes, vividly actually — like it was yesterday. I remember vividly trying to flag my dad down one day, just after getting introduced to guerrilla pimping [sex work coerced with threats] for the first time. He drove by me and just waved and kept going.

DB: How old were you?

KF: Young. Really young. I was still a minor … I got tired of being told I provoked things.

DB: So since then, how many times have you experienced homelessness?

KF: Quite a few. I mean, after that I got jobs as a live-in nanny to stay off the street. But I would get fired quite often because the kids would start calling me 'mom' because their moms would be all too happy to take a break.

DB: Plus you are really good at cooking, apparently?

KF: I'm quite good at cooking [laughs]. I didn't get this much personal insulation by being a bad cook, definitely.

DB: Can you estimate how many times and how long in total you have been homeless?

KF: My last stint of being housed, I was housed for almost 10 years in one spot. I don't like moving too much. I definitely considered the last building I was in my family.

DB: Why did you have to leave?

KF: I had just gotten over giardia [parasite] in my water, then my two dogs started a fire in my house, because they were looking for rotten meat I'd taken out of the fridge and left on the stove … when they gave me back my place after the [previous time] my sprinkler was set off because I asked someone to leave my house and they set off my sprinkler, I had to stay somewhere else … And to make sure I couldn't have any guests, they put me on the third floor — which was for the people who need mental supervision 24/7 … They told me I couldn't have guests for three months.

DB: That must have felt very disempowering?

KF: Oh, quite much so, yeah.

DB: Is there anything you find you like about not being there — anything that gives you a little more dignity here?

KF: Sure, yeah. Now I can have guests, and I don't have people telling me, having dictatorship over me, or trying to play God in my life. It's a little less predominant, anyway — because I suppose the parks board is trying to do that by trying to pass this bylaw. We don't need more people trying to run around playing God in our lives, we really don't. It's not what's needed. What's needed is actual housing, instead of what they're offering us like the SROs [single-resident occupancy apartments] or modular housing. That's not housing, that's a quick fix. It's like putting a bandaid on a gushing wound. It's not proper, it's not going to fix anything.

DB: What makes those feel short-term to you? Is it because they're modular, temporary housing?

KF: The modular housing, you sign a three-year lease. Three years is not permanent housing. What happens after three years, what happens then? Do they stop renting the space they're renting ? They don't even own the space. It's temporary; it's a quick fix. That's not housing. Housing is houses, or a building, or condos. Even when they put the policemen and the nurses into Olympic Village — that's housing. What they're doing to us is not housing. They want to give us adult babysitters and tell us that we're all mentally ill and we need this and we need that.

But why not just give us what we're asking for? Hell, give us the space, the tools and the supplies and we'll build our own damn housing! We have enough skilled tradesmen and people in here who are fully capable — hell, we have someone in here who was a fire code guy, he walks around here and tells us what's wrong with everything, constantly.

DB: And he lives here?

KF: He lives here.

DB: So people are taking on roles? They're looking out for each other — like in the kitchen, security, tending the fire, elders?

KF: Exactly. When we started to appoint different people on the teams, the security team, the fire team, the kitchen team, I suggested there be a female and male for each position because I didn't think it would be fair to not have a female and male for every position.

DB: Tell me about the park board motion to have people move out during the day and come back, kind of like a homeless shelter?

KF: That's just going to make our lives more difficult. And telling us we have to pack up and move every day, that's leaving the door open for the police to come in and steal our possessions once again, every day. How degrading and demoralizing is it — it kills your self-worth, it kills everything within you that makes you want to survive. You just want to give up.

DB: Is it because you've established a home here, even if it's a tent — it's still a place where you have a bed and everything set up, and all your stuff's together?

KF: Right? Exactly. I don't have to pull it around all day. I could be out looking for new work, or even going back to my job at OPS [Overdose Prevention Site] as opposed to —

DB: You worked at the OPS?

KF: I worked there once a week, but it's a little hard to get there and go to work if you're having to tote everything you own around with you all day, every day. As well as my dogs.

DB: Are there folks here with nalaxone training [to reverse overdoses], or are helping people out of overdoses here?

KF: Yes, I have to say so, I live here. I've nalaxone training. There hasn't been too many O.D.'s in the park actually, period. Thankfully. And I do believe that when they displace people from their tents, that's when you get the O.D.'s. That's when you have people O.D.ing and dying.

DB: Why is that?

KF: Like when they displaced all the people that were out living in front of my [former] building, my friend Carver died that day because there was nobody there to help him.

DB: That would have been really stressful to lose his home. So that's probably going to make somebody want to get a fix.

KF: Right. It definitely makes someone want to go out and get high, for sure. And now worry about finding somebody to use with, because they displaced everybody — so where's he going to find somebody to use with? When I was homeless with my cat, he gave me his place to give us a place to stay. [Cries]

DB: I'm sorry … What does your ideal home look like?

KF: I guess a fenced yard with a puppy park in the back of it. [Laughs]. Something for the dogs to play on … They live to play fetch. My ideal home would have a ball-tosser, a ball-chucker in the back yard so she can play fetch constantly.

DB: And presumably a nice kitchen too?

KF: Oh, hell yeah. I need a nice kitchen, because I won't stop cooking! And I only cook when there's an audience, so there needs to be the space to entertain. [Laughs].

DB: What immediately do you want to see? I know the goal is 10,000 units of social housing in the long-term, but immediately — instead of the park board doing this new law moving you every day? How would you like them to approach the camp?

KF: Come do protocol and actually talk to us like we're people. How about you start talking to us like we're humans, and stop lying about us? Come talk to me in person, I'm here every morning in this tennis court cooking breakfast. I'm a human being, and I interact with people like a human being. I don't think I'm asking for any special treatment, I don't think anybody is. We're just asking to be treated like people instead of animals. 'Cause telling everybody that we're dangerous, they're trying to put down on paper that we're animals. But we're far from it.

When I was with my family, it was a decent upbringing, for the most part. There's definitely hiccups … Dealing with a rebellious daughter maybe wasn't [my father's] forte. My dream house would be for a lot more people than just me.

DB: What's the best part of this place?

KF: The fact that the cops don't get called here. I think that's a great thing. We don't need their interaction. I can handle any problem 20 different ways without having to call them. And they don't need us calling them to something that they really don't need to be here for. Hell, even any fires we get under control … We respond well to emergencies. I guess we're good at it now. We've had a fair share of them now. We've got it under control and taken care of …

I think that speaks volumes that we're so capable of handling small day-to-day problems — we don't need other people handling our problems for us. Shouldn't that speak volumes to the public? Instead of them thinking we're all dangerous. We're not animals. We're not dangerous. We're people, just like everybody else. Some of us have better problem-solving skills than others. I think we should be recognized for that, as opposed to being inherently dangerous. I can't believe someone actually called us that — what does 'inherently' actually mean? How blissful really can their ignorance be?

I'd like that person to come join us in tent city, come do protocol here and see how really heinous and violent we really are — or really aren't, I should say, because that's a bunch of lies. Open their mind, come bring some open-mindedness to tent city. Because we're not lacking in it as residents here. We're very creative and very open-minded. They should maybe humble themselves, eat some crow pie and come hang out for a minute. Hell, come by for oatmeal in the morning! I got no problems serving them oatmeal.

Listen to The Pulse on CFRO's interview with Kirstine Fermin below, originally broadcast on July 30, 2020, or stream the full segment at Vancouver Co-op Radio's website.