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‘We are not a zoo’: Kelowna’s Tent City residents react to recent cleaning

This article featuring Erica Stewart, a resident of Tent City, is part of a series on homelessness in Kelowna
Erica Stewart pictured with her tent and belongings after the Tent City spring cleaning on April 23. (Jacqueline Gelineau/Capital News)

Voices from Tent City: Residents of Kelowna’s homeless encampment speak out on the recent spring clean

Since Kelowna’s ‘outdoor sheltering area’– now called Tent City by its residents – was first established in 2021, it has grown into a community of hundreds who call the place home.

According to the most recent counts done by Kelowna’s bylaw officers, approximately 100 people currently live at Tent City and the numbers are expected to increase as the summer approaches.

City bylaw states that people who are experiencing unsheltered homelessness in Kelowna may only set up their tents at the designated outdoor sheltering area, which is located at the busy intersection of Richter Street and Weddell Place.

As the encampment has grown over the last three years, at times reaching a population of nearly 300, photos and videos taken of the people who call Tent City home have been posted to Facebook, X and Instagram numerous times, often attracting a barrage of negative comments.

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Recently, a popular Instagram page called Okanagan Party Life, posted a video of the encampment to social media, prompting an influx of comments targeting those experiencing unsheltered homelessness.

Erica Stewart, a resident of Tent City said that it is scary to feel like you are constantly being watched while at your home, particularly when people make violent and hate-filled comments about your community online.

Tent City often attracts even more attention during the seasonal deep cleans, which involve the complete removal of all belongings from the site using garbage trucks and backhoes. Accumulated garbage and unclaimed or damaged tents are thrown out to ensure cleanliness, safety and security for the residents of Tent City and the neighbouring communities, said Kelowna bylaw services manager Kevin Mead.

While Stewart was preparing for the sit-down interview with Capital News, a driver slowed their vehicle and rolled down their window to take a photo of Tent City on the scheduled clean-up day.

“We are not a zoo,” said Stewart, frustrated with the daily occurrence.

She has been a resident of Tent City on and off for the last two years and during that time, has become a strong voice of for her unhoused neighbours and a leader within the tight-knit community. In speaking out, Stewart hopes to bridge the gap between Tent City and the homes and businesses that surround the encampment. 

The encampment is located along the Okanagan Rail Trail, a popular multi-use pathway that is nestled in between homes and businesses, including Kelowna’s popular North End brewery district.

Stewart said that the location of Tent City is not ideal.

She explained that residents often feel like their suffering is on display as passersby stop to gawk, yell profanities or take photos. While the lack of privacy is upsetting, Stewart said that what truly scares residents is the fear that someone may act on the negative and violent comments that they have read online. She said that as there have been aggressive interactions in the past, fear of violence is always top of mind.

The site is also located approximately one kilometre from the nearest community resource centre, Metro Community, which is where people are able to access showers, laundry, food, water and social supports. Stewart explained that the distance of the journey to Metro can be prohibitive for people with disabilities or mental illness and as a result, people often go long stretches without bathing since there is currently no running water at Tent City.

After working as a flight attendant for many years, personal reasons led Stewart to Tent City. While the option to live in one of the city’s shelters is available, Stewart said she prefers the community and sense of freedom at Tent City.

She explained that while it is her choice to sleep at Tent City, many of her neighbours do not have that choice.

Some of the people living at Tent City have experienced trauma or have mental illness that makes it difficult for them to comply with rules at the shelters at this period of time in their lives.

At the encampment, people are able to set up semi-permanent shelters like tents or shacks, and while there are regulations to abide by, people have more autonomy in their day-to-day lives.

Kelowna bylaw services manager Kevin Mead said that the intention behind Tent City is that by having one centralized place where organizations can go to provide supports and resources, such as meals, harm reduction supplies and medical care to people experiencing unsheltered homelessness, hopefully, more people will receive the help that they need.

Mead said that in ensuring residents of Tent City and the surrounding community are living in a safe environment, it is important to have regular cleanings.

While residents of Tent City were notified of the cleaning weeks in advance, Stewart said that some of her neighbours were unable to be present when the dump trucks, backhoes and graters rolled in.

She said that some people were in the hospital for unforeseen issues, while others had been arrested and were in jail during the clean-up.

Because these people were not present to claim and move their things, their tents and belongings were thrown out.

“They have the right to have their home still when they get out of jail,” said Stewart. “Even if it is just a tent.”

However, Mead added that bylaw services and BC Housing will replace any tents that were thrown out during the cleaning.

He said the purpose of the cleaning is to make the area safe and secure for not only the residents of Tent City but also the people who live in the neighbouring communities.

“We undertake every level of reasonableness,” said Mead about bylaw’s choice to throw out the tents of people who were unable to be present at the clean-up day.

Some people who were present at the cleaning were also unable to keep their shelters as they did not meet the safety regulations put in place by bylaw services.

Tent City has had multiple structure fires over the past few years and in response bylaw services and the fire department have imposed regulations designed to mitigate the risk of burns to a person if a blaze does engulf their tent, or of flames spreading between structures.

READ MORE:Another tent goes up in flames at Kelowna encampment

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Regardless of the reason, Stewart said that it is a hard day when your belongings end up in the trash.

“When you’re out here there are enough bad things going on in your life. Having your home taken over and over again is not something you look forward to,” said Stewart.

She said that in addition to the loss of their homes, it is often people’s personal belongings like their art or pieces of identification, that the most painful to lose.

Mead said bylaw services will continue to work with all levels of government, local outreach organizations and people who are currently experiencing homelessness or have lived experience to meet the dynamic needs of Kelowna’s entire community.

Part two of Voices from Tent City will be published next week, follow for more.


Erica Stewart talks about the Tent City clean-up that just took place. While a deep clean is necessary, it can be a difficult day for people who live at the encampment as many belongings end up being thrown out. Voices from Tent City Episode 1 Part 1/3 More at

♬ original sound - Kelowna Capital News

Jacqueline Gelineau

About the Author: Jacqueline Gelineau

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