A decade-long Christmas-time pilgrimage from Port Moody to the Downtown Eastside is facing an uncertain future only hours after Vancouver police announced a shooting Thursday at Oppenheimer Park.
Every Christmas, students from Heritage Woods secondary’s Kodiaks with a Purpose club (KWAP) gather donations, food and warm clothing in a holiday gesture that has developed into a long-term relationship between hundreds of students and homeless people.
But over the last year, the number of homeless moving into the camp at Oppenheimer has surged and some residents have faced violence. In October, a 53-year-old woman who was visiting a man staying in the park encampment was seriously hurt in a shooting that police say happened nearby.
The Vancouver Police Department is warning of a significant increase in weapons, violence and calls for service at the campsite as gangs compete for territory in the park. Police also say they recently thwarted a murder plot by arresting three street gang members who were allegedly planning to kill a rival drug trafficker who operates in the area.
Thursday, in the hours leading up to the shooting, nearly 50 Heritage Woods students were busy packing donations, wrapping Christmas presents and preparing meals.
“It’s most drastically changed this year. We have to make sure we have bigger males coming down with us,” said Grade 12 student organizer Apolline De Schaetzen.
When news came filtering in Friday morning that someone had been shot the previous day, the school’s principal stopped the group from going.
“I thought we’d be adding to the chaos if the police were around. Inserting 50 kids into the scene wouldn’t be good to them,” said principal Todd Clerkson.
De Schaetzen, 17, has spent the last four years visiting Oppenheimer but says the last year has been trying.
“I’m not so sure anymore,” she told The Tri-City News. “With the [last] shooting, we thought we’d wait until it settled down again and then this happened.”
Now, the group is trying to figure out what to do with 15 pounds of sloppy joe meat, a giant bowl of tuna salad spread and 60 wrapped presents, among other donations. Both the school’s administration and staff say they may return in the new year but nothing has been confirmed.
De Schaetzen says the Christmas trip is KWAP's biggest and most important to the residents of encampment, especially as it has grown.
“We’re well aware of the situation but we still wanted to try our best. They’re in critical need now. They’re in survival mode,” she said.
Over the years, De Schaetzen said she has formed many long-lasting relationships in the camp, but none has been more critical to their success than that of Brent Phillips.
Phillips — who at one time was homeless himself but now lives about a block away from Oppenheimer with his service dog — says he has become an honorary member of the club, its “eyes and ears.”
On Thursday at about 5:30 p.m., Phillips said he was walking his dog less than a block away from the park when he heard a gunshot. Phillips said he took refuge in the Powell Street Getaway, a safe space for people who are homeless or living in local rooming houses. Police cars swarmed the crime scene that night but, by Friday morning, he said everything was back to normal, “at least normal for here.”
The timing of the shooting couldn’t be worse, said Phillips, not just for the people directly involved but for some of the others who are struggling waiting for a pre-Christmas welfare cheque.
“This is the hard time of the month,” he said. “A lot of people are broke.”
A visit from the KWAP students means a good meal or two, a wrapped gift and new socks and underwear at a wet and cold time of year.
For the students, both Phillips and De Schaetzen said the experience sets them on a path where they’re forced to look clear-eyed at some of the most forgotten members of the community.
“It really helps to break stereotypes,” De Schaetzen said. “People see a homeless person begging for money. They’ll try to look forward, not look, avoid the encounter. We’re not oblivious. We know there’s a lot of addiction down there. But there’s people who just ended up on the streets for other reasons… At some time during their life they just fell victim to a series of unfortunate events — [now they’re] stuck in a cycle of poverty.”
De Schaetzen says her experience working with the people at Oppenheimer Park — as well as other disadvantaged concentrations in the Tri-Cities — has guided her to pursue a career in human rights law.
“It has shaped the way I see the world around me and what footprints I want to leave,” she said. “With all the bad that’s happening in the world, that’s what I want to do: make a difference in people’s lives. It’s a good way to make a small start, one person at a time.”
Phillips says he hopes the recent shootings don’t put a damper on students' spirits.
“In some cases, the media has blown the danger out of proportion,” he said with a caveat: “During the day, it’s pretty safe. It’s at night, when it gets crazy. That’s when it really gets unsafe.”
– with files from Canadian Press