More than 140 people and 200 structures have to be out of Oppenheimer Park by Wednesday, as systemic issues of homelessness and addiction reach a fevered pitch in the heart of the Downtown Eastside.
The tent city that’s been in the park in varying degrees and sizes since 2014 will be dismantled by way of an order from park board general manager Malcolm Bromley.
The encampment contravenes a park board bylaw preventing anyone from setting up a tent, shelter or building in a city park.
The city is offering more than 100 housing units to about 140 homeless people in Oppenheimer. Should they accept the city’s housing offer, the campers will end up at either BC Housing or city-run facilities. All of the housing stock being made available is publicly-owned and non-profit run buildings, including single-resident-occupancy rooms.
Whether those in the park end up in modular housing in other parts of Vancouver or in a room 100 feet from the park isn’t known — the city won’t say, largely due to privacy reasons.
What’s known is that all of the housing is within the city limits.
“We know that there’s been a lot of speculation in the community around the quality of these rooms,” said Sandra Singh, the city’s general manager of arts, culture and community services. “Most of them have been recently renovated, they were all in the queue and so we were able to take stock and put them together in order to support this effort.”
Singh noted that both city outreach staff and BC Housing employees have been working with those in the park for a month to find alternatives.
The city notes that there’s a percentage of people in Oppenheimer who aren’t homeless.
What happens to them?
“The GM’s order to remove structures from the park stands,” Singh replied. “And we will be working with them to try to help them comply with that order.”
VPD media relations officer Const. Steve Addison wouldn’t comment on how the police will deal with any campers who choose to stay after the 6 p.m. deadline on Wednesday.
In a media briefing July 11, the Vancouver Police Department issued a public statement about the safety concerns they had for campers at the park, city staff working at the park, firefighters and themselves.
That statement came after a gun fight in Oppenheimer, when police said no fewer than four officers would be dispatched into the park at a time out of concerns over members’ safety.
In June alone, police responded to 92 emergency calls in the park. There were 87 in May.
The city sought a court-ordered injunction to remove a similar encampment in 2014. The issue stretched over two months and 250 people were in the park at that time. In this case, tents have been in Oppenheimer for at least 18 months.
Will a similar injunction be sought in the event campers aren’t out by Wednesday night?
“It’s really a bit too early in this process for us to speculate that far ahead at this point,” Singh said. “We’re really focused on those 140 people or so who are wanting to get into housing.
Mayor Kennedy Stewart was asked the same question earlier this month.
“At this point, our focus is making sure these folks have housing. There’s a wide range of options that can be pursued, and all of those have been discussed,” he told the Courier. “At this point, I’m focusing on getting these folks housing, including talking with the federal government, talking with BC Housing, trying to see if we can get enough housing — whether it’s existing, or temporary — that we can get these folks out of the tents and into a better living condition.”
A Fire Chief’s order has been in place since February that sets out numerous conditions to reduce the fire hazard for people living in the park, but compliance with that order has been limited.
There have been 17 fires in the park since that time.
“What we saw over the following months is that compliance with that order was very limited. We had a number of fires in the park, there has been increasing violent incidents in the park,” Singh said. “So we got to a point where it became very difficult for us to not start think about taking action given the life safety risk.”
Ten years ago this spring, Oppenheimer got a $2.3 million cash infusion to revamp and redevelop. That money turned into a new modern field house, new playground, new basketball court, paved paths, drainage and 11 new trees for a total of 50.
Addison was asked Monday morning if conditions are worsening at Oppenheimer.
“Just in the past week alone there have been 21 violent incidents in and around the park,” he responded.
- with files from Mike Howell