Strathcona businesses urge action on Oppenheimer Park tent city

‘We can’t just kick those campers out, they need somewhere to go’

The majority of businesses in and around Oppenheimer Park say something needs to be done about the ever-growing number of campers in the park.

A new survey by the Strathcona Business Improvement Association found that 83 per cent of respondents operating in and around Oppenheimer Park agree that efforts should be made to return the park to its original purpose — a green and social space.

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The camp started about a year ago and today there are an estimated 130 campers living in Oppenheimer.

“The Strathcona BIA serves over 850 business members in Vancouver’s Eastside community, including many directly surrounding the park,” Emma Carscadden, Strathcona BIA president, said in a press release. “It was time to hear from them directly on how park activity has impacted their ability to participate in the community and the local economy.”

The survey found that while 83 per cent of respondents believe efforts should be made to return the park to its original purpose, 17 per cent said they are open to the concept of a city-sanctioned tent city. Of that 17 per cent, several businesses indicated that emergency housing should be dispersed throughout the city, while others felt that it shouldn’t be in a park at all.

According to the BIA, businesses in the area have reported a loss of customers and an inability to retain staff due to safety concerns.

One business in the vicinity of the park noted, “the number of violent incidents has spiked in the time since it has become a tent city” and “the number of times we have had to call 911 has risen beyond a point of reasonable expectation.”

Last month Vancouver police noted a “sharp increase in the level of violence in and around the encampment at Oppenheimer Park in recent months,” media relations officer Sgt. Jason Robillard said following a shooting in the park July 10. “Police are responding to several 911 calls in the park every day and we are very concerned about the safety of people staying there, our officers, firefighters and City of Vancouver staff.”

Robillard said at the time that when called to the park, officers go in groups of no less than four.

In June, officers responded to 92 emergency calls in the park while May saw 87 calls. That’s up significantly from 2018, which saw 56 emergency calls in both May and June.

Many survey respondents also called for more support from the city — clean water — and more access to social services, and additional garbage bins and washrooms.

“More bathroom access would go a long way to provide basic, humane services for campers, and in helping businesses in the area who are often left with clean up and sanitation issues in the front streets and back alleys,” said Theo Lamb, Strathcona BIA executive director.

“We only recently were able to arrange city lane flushing down the back alleyways in and around Oppenheimer Park, but it’s not enough. Campers and community members need access to washrooms that stretch from day into night.”

Many survey respondents expressed empathy for campers. One business noted: “We can’t just kick those campers out, they need somewhere to go.” And several indicated a preference to work to find appropriate housing alternatives for campers.

“One thing that is clear is that businesses in and around Oppenheimer Park feel strongly that action needs to occur,” Lamb said.

@JessicaEKerr

jkerr@vancourier.com

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