Credit to Author: Zak Vescera| Date: Thu, 15 Aug 2019 02:49:56 +0000
City and housing authorities plan to relocate residents of a tent city at Oppenheimer Park following concerns from law enforcement, neighbours and businesses about the safety of the homeless camp.
Chrissy Brett, an advocate for the homeless who moved into the Downtown Eastside park a month ago, says the City of Vancouver and B.C. Housing plan to relocate residents into single-room occupancy rooms accumulated over the past three months and that notice could be served to those living in the park as early as this week.
A source at the City of Vancouver and a B.C. Housing communications representative confirmed there is an emerging plan to relocate residents.
“Staff continue to identify housing options, including identifying vacant and recently-repaired SRO units, and make housing offers to residents in need of homes,” said BC Housing in a statement. “This effort will continue.”
Asked directly, City of Vancouver communications specialist Sally Green wrote in a statement that the city is “working very closely with partners, including B.C. Housing, to take stock of housing vacancies as we move toward finding solutions for those who are experiencing homelessness and have been living in Oppenheimer Park,” but did not confirm or deny the report.
Carnegie Community Action Project coordinator and administrator Fiona York says she last counted 129 tents, the most in the park’s long history as a temporary shelter for the homeless. Some counts are as high as 200. She estimates at least 150 people live in the park, which now includes a sanctioned overdose prevention site and running water facilities.
York says the camp’s growth came in the wake of the closure of two single-room occupancy hotels in the Downtown Eastside.
“That caused a big shift in the neighbourhood where people were displaced and ended up having to stay on the street or a shelter,” she said.
Brett says the camp’s relationship with the fire department and most neighbours is positive, but authorities worry the park is a safety risk to its occupants.
Last month, the City of Vancouver pulled out recreational staff from the park’s field house, saying they “had been significantly diverted from regular programming to assist with things like incident de-escalation and intervention, cleaning up debris left by campers, and other non-community programming related activities.”
The Vancouver Police Department said in a statement last month it was “very concerned about the safety of the people staying there, our officers, firefighters, and City of Vancouver staff.”
Department numbers show that between January and July of this year, there were 536 calls for service in Oppenheimer Park, almost double the number from last year, and a 45-per-cent increase over 2017.
Calls have risen over the course of this year, reaching a peak last month, when police received 138 calls to Oppenheimer Park, almost double the number recorded over each of the previous two Julys.
Theodora Lamb, the executive director of the Strathcona Business Improvement Association, says a survey of 59 members across the neighbourhood found 83 per cent thought the park should return to its original use.
She stressed the importance of finding adequate housing for residents, but said conditions make employees and potential customers of nearby businesses feel unsafe.
Brett disputed that characterization, saying park conditions are still safer than other forms of homelessness, albeit more visible.
“We want to keep people who are preying on vulnerable people out of the park,” she said.
Matthew Smedley is the executive director and CEO of Mission Possible, an NGO operating in the neighbourhood for almost 30 years.
He said he agrees that conditions in single-room occupancy units can be worse than the park.
“For people who kind of buy into the stereotypes of the Downtown Eastside, the tent city can kind of highlight that for them,” he said.
Chrissy and York said relocating residents to SROs, as the city plans to do, is not a perfect solution. They are concerned the units could have gone to other homeless residents who were in more immediate need.
Another social housing source said a housing freeze is in effect, meaning rooms are being left vacant even if homeless people request one. The speculation among the industry is that B.C. Housing is freeing up space for those living in Oppenheimer Park — which may have incentivized more homeless people to move into the park in recent weeks.
Smedley said he sympathizes with his colleagues at the Business Improvement Association and wants residents to have better access to affordable, sanitary housing.
After 13 years in the neighbourhood, however, he wonders if any solution will address the underlying crisis of homelessness in the city.
“There’s the short-term immediate need, but there’s also the history of this,” he said. “This happens all the time.”
— with file from Dan Fumano
This article has been updated to include comment from BC Housing.