‘Selfless’ volunteers in Vancouver’s homeless camp are driven by human connection

For the residents of Vancouver’s Crab Park homeless camp, the name Fiona York has certain positive connotations.

“Humanitarian,” said resident Josh Beauchamp. “She’s just a good person. She does everything to come here and stay here to help people.”

“She’s selfless,” said resident Clint Randen on a rainy day in mid-December. “The only complaint I have is that she should go home more … we do not want her to get sick.”

Looking at her schedule, it is no surprise that people are concerned about her well-being.

A campground is pictured near Crab Park on June 16, 2020. (Ben Nelms / CBC)

Depending on who you ask, York spends 40 hours a week or more volunteering at Crab Park. The days – or rather the afternoons and evenings where she typically works – are long and often range from 10 to 12 hours and involve everything from coordinating volunteers to speaking for the residents and spending time talking to the residents about their needs.

This is on top of her part-time job as a support employee.

About 35 people live in Crab Park, located east of the Vancouver Convention Center on Burrard Inlet.

“I decided I’m here until the end – until it’s over,” said York, whose work goes back to the camp’s previous iteration in Strathcona Park. “No matter what happens here in this community, I just feel like I want to be a part of it.”

In November, the Vancouver Park Board requested a court order to remove residents from the site. It is not yet given.

Connects homeless communities

York’s efforts have caught the attention of other homeless advocates around BC, who say her intimate knowledge of the park’s residents, as well as the systems that perpetuate the problem, help her advocate in ways that are different from other non-profit organizations.

Prince George’s homeless lawyer Amelia Merrick, left, visited York, right, and the residents of Crab Park in November. (Courtesy: Amelia Merrick)

“The work that the government used to do for social safety nets in Canada is now being transferred to our non-profit organizations and our service agencies,” said Prince George’s homeless lawyer Amelia Merrick, who is completing a PhD. on the changing roles of non-profits in Canada with the University of Toronto.

“They also do not have the political structure, often to be able to make the kind of changes needed for something like the homelessness crisis,” she said. “That’s where I look at someone like Fiona and … she’s just such an inspiration to me because she’s able to say no, and she recognizes that her position is to help the residents of Crab Park with to be heard. “

Solidarity

At times, it means reinforcing the message so that it reaches homeless residents in other communities.

When a Supreme Court judge in BC in October ruled that the Moccasin Flats camp in Prince George would be allowed to remain due to a lack of appropriate alternatives, Merrick and York organized a video call between the two camps in a solidarity show.

“People often say that homelessness is about choice,” York said. “But when you see that it’s a systemic problem, it clarifies things … Knowing it empowers people.”

Crab Park resident Clint Randen says his only complaint about York is that she is not resting enough. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza / CBC)

Meanwhile, it is unclear to what extent the homelessness crisis has worsened since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

In December, the city of Vancouver announced that it was canceling its number of homeless people in 2022, citing challenges from the pandemic and a need to minimize the risk of transmission. The 2021 census was also canceled.

In 2020, survey data collected by volunteers over a 24-hour period in March counted 3,634 people experiencing homelessness in Metro Vancouver, a slight increase over the previous count in 2017. This report also found that people who identify as black , was disproportionately represented among Metro Vancouver’s homeless. population.

A census across the province in 2018, meanwhile, found 160 people experiencing homelessness in Prince George.

Eleven years after her work as a lawyer, York says it is the “personal connections” that keep her going.

“Sometimes it feels like the whole system or the whole state is going backwards and making things worse, but I see some small things of progress,” she said. “There are some changes happening.”

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