Shea Smith remembers walking by a tattered, wind-beaten tent on a cold, rainy night last year in February. Inside, a young woman he knew was singing all by herself.
“To see someone try and calm themselves, to try to remain positive, who is absolutely isolated and cold and wet was heartbreaking,” Smith said.
He knows if he had walked by that same tent in February this year the story would have been different. Smith would have headed over to the community care tent, no matter the time of night, and got the woman whatever supplies she needed – repair patches for her tent, dry clothes and a sleeping bag, a warm tea and meal. And, perhaps most importantly, the young woman would have had a safe place to go and talk with other people facing similar circumstances. Maybe, Smith thinks, she wouldn’t have been so alone.
This is what the community care tent, so aptly named, has offered – a haven from living on the margins of society. “It’s a lot more than a warming centre,” Smith said. “It’s a kind of town hall.”
|Shea Smith chats with a couple Beacon Hill Park campers who came by the care tent for some hot soup. (Jane Skrypnek/News Staff)|
Smith, who only recently secured temporary housing himself, spent much of his time volunteering at the care tent on night shifts. This is one of several things that made the space unique from other support services – it was open 24/7.
Night shifts could comprise of all manner of supports.
Sometimes, it meant talking down people having a mental health episode or disagreement and trying to minimize any kind of disturbance to those living nearby. Other times, it was going and helping someone repair a tent tear or having a cup of tea with someone who needed to talk.
Smith is a big guy with long dark hair often pulled back in a pony tail and looks like he could be a bouncer. He’s personable, well-spoken and authoritative. He seems like exactly the right person to be working night shifts.
“We live it, so you can’t really get much more training than that,” Smith said.
“That’s right,” fellow volunteer Collin Spires added. “We have a PhD in street.”
They’re talking about peer support, another important aspect of the care tent.
The concept of people with first-hand experience helping others in the same situation is nothing new, but it’s also not something that has been so concretely and naturally implemented in Victoria before.
No one hired unhoused people to offer support at the care tent. No one paid them. And yet, Smith said he estimates a third of the volunteers were fellow homeless people.
“The care tent was actually created and run by peers, by people in the community who saw a need and wanted to make it happen,” Niki Ottosen, founder of the Backpack Project Victoria, said.
Ottosen, who used to run her annual donation initiative once a year, remembers the fear that spread through the unhoused community when the pandemic first hit. Suddenly, their supports and services were gone and shelter space was cut. The uncertainty unhoused people live with every day was heightened.
Ottosen started going out every week to deliver supplies to people living in parks. And, as those people began to recognize her face and rely on her regularity, she noticed a small difference – she started to see some relief.
The community care tent offered that relief on a larger scale.
“When people realize there is a place for support that’s not going away, that’s consistent, they change. It gives them hope,” Ottosen said. “This was the first time they were able to sit still 24/7 and form a community on their own.”
|After two months at its Cook Street location, the community care tent was taken down March 31. (Jane Skrypnek/News Staff)|
The care tent was controversial. In many ways it deepened tensions around housing and homelessness in Victoria. But, for the housed and unhoused people who ran and used it, it built understanding and connections.
“It’s been the highlight of my week to get to come and talk to these people,” Joanne Keelan, a housed volunteer, said. The tent provided a space where people could mingle and base their opinions of each other on real interactions. It gave a realistic look at both the good and the bad.
When it came to the bad – the outbursts, noise or fights – Smith said they are thankful to the surrounding neighbours for putting up with it.
“Just consider yourselves and the aggravations you dealt with as part of the solution,” Smith said. Simply allowing the tent to stay was a contribution in his books.
Wednesday was the care tent’s final day. Organizer Shea Perkins and Red Cedar Cafe co-executive director Liz Maze said they decided not to request an extension on the Cook Street permit. With winter behind them and more indoor sheltering spots opening, Perkins said he wants to switch how they offer supports. He’s thinking about going mobile.
“Closing down is bittersweet,” he said. He knows it will be devastating for some people, but also knows they have built lasting community.