Vancouver Park Board Thursday night maintained its stance against seeking a court injunction to remove homeless people camping in Oppenheimer Park.
At a special meeting convened at the request of NPA commissioners John Coupar and Tricia Barker, commissioners voted 4-2 in favour of a motion asking the city and province to continue to look for housing for people experiencing homelessness.
Barker and Coupar, who have both spoken out in favour of getting an injunction, voted against the motion. COPE commissioner Gwen Giesbrecht was not at the meeting.
The motion, introduced by Green commissioner Camil Dumont, also pushes for temporary housing and shelter options that are “accessible, safe and dignified” in order to bridge the gap until longer-term housing is available; commits to the goal of voluntarily “decampment” at Oppenheimer; and, encourages park board staff to meet with people camping in the park.
Before voting on the motion, board chair Stuart Mackinnon stressed that no decision should be made without hearing from the people living in the park.
A number of people signed up to speak to park board commissioners at Thursday’s meeting, including some who have been camping in the park.
Erica Grant is one of those people. She and her partner have been camping in Oppenheimer Park for the past three months.
“We don’t like living in the park,” she told commissioners. “It’s so dehumanizing.”
Grant , who is sick with pneumonia, said they are constantly having to chase rats away from the tent. And when it rained overnight earlier this week, the couple woke up soaking wet the next morning but had few options to dry their bedding and clothes because the rain continued.
Before moving into Oppenheimer the couple was living on the streets, sleeping wherever they could find a bit of shelter.
“We always feared for our safety,” she said.
And while they say they don’t want to have to camp in the park, it’s better than the alternative.
“Living in the park with everyone else, it makes you feel like you belong somewhere,” she said. “And a lot of us down there just want to belong.”
Grant said the couple has not yet been offered housing but have applied “everywhere.”
“It’s better because you have community there,” she told the Courier after the meeting. “You have people that care about you, people that will help you out.”
The park board has maintained its position against seeking an injunction despite recommendations from park board and city staff, as well as Vancouver police and fire departments. Deputy city manager Paul Mochrie, VPD Deputy Chief Howard Chow, Vancouver fire Deputy Chief Rob Renning and park board general manager Malcolm Bromley all told commissioners that a court injunction is recommended.
Mochrie said the encampment has cost the city more than $800,000.
Four city councilors, Jean Swanson, Sarah Kirby-Yung, Rebecca Bligh and Melissa De Genova were also at Thursday’s meeting. De Genova spoke in favour of seeking a court injunction, while Swanson thanked the park board for its earlier decision not to go through the courts. Kirby-Yung said she was happy to see the motion being considered is in a similar spirit to a motion going to council next week that is meant to “bridge the impasse” between Mayor Kennedy Stewart and the park board
In 2014, during the last encampment at Oppenheimer Park, the park board of the day successfully sought an injunction. Police, park rangers and city workers cleared the park and found housing for the majority of campers.
Five people were arrested but not charged.
Earlier this month, Mayor Kennedy Stewart said that he would like to see the park board temporarily cede jurisdiction of the park to the city.
Stewart suggested he had a plan in place for the people in the park – which he estimated at 40 – that could include seeking an injunction. But, he said, he first needed power transferred to the city.
The park board has, so far, maintained its jurisdiction over the park. However, Mackinnon said that he met with the mayor on Wednesday and he feels optimistic that a solution can be found.
- With files from Mike Howell