Credit to Author: Dan Fumano| Date: Wed, 04 Sep 2019 03:45:59 +0000
Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart wants the park board to temporarily give up control of Oppenheimer Park to city hall to allow what he is calling “a new way forward” in dealing with the continuing tent city.
Some, including the park board’s chair, are wondering exactly how that would improve the situation.
People camping in Oppenheimer Park are not a new phenomenon, but as the region’s homelessness problem has worsened, this year had an especially high number of people living in tents in the Downtown Eastside park.
The number of tents and residents fluctuates constantly, but at one point this summer, city officials counted nearly 200 tents.
On Aug. 19,an eviction order was posted by park board general manager Malcolm Bromley, ordering occupants to remove any tents and vacate by Aug. 21. That deadline passed without police clearing the park.
B.C. Housing and city staff have been working to relocate park residents into social housing. As of last week, about 125 had accepted offers of housing.
But, according to the latest count from city staff, about 60 tents remained as of late last week. About 40 residents were still working with staff trying to find suitable homes. Another 10 to 15 people had accepted offers of housing but hadn’t yet moved out of the park. About three people have homes elsewhere, but were choosing to live in the park at least temporarily, staff estimated, and roughly six tents were occupied by activists who are not homeless themselves.
Stewart signed off on the plan last month to move park residents into housing, but as of Tuesday, he said he felt progress had “stalled.”
“We had a good plan that was formulated with city staff and with B.C. Housing, but we’ve kind of hit a point where we have to make some decisions,” Stewart said. With his concerns increasing around safety in Oppenheimer, he wants to seek control of the park.
Stewart would not provide detail about what actions he would take, if given control of the park. But when asked to explain how transferring jurisdiction could improve the situation, Stewart said his office is in a better position than the park board to deal with the federal and provincial governments.
The park board, he said, have authority over the park, but not the resources to deal with the tent city. “They’re equipped very well to handle day-to-day park business. They’re not equipped or empowered to deal with massive social problems in a park.”
“What we’ve got is a city problem that’s taking place in a park. If it was in a parking lot, we would have full jurisdictional control over this, and we could pursue all options,” he said. “So this is a new way forward, in a way. I haven’t heard of this being used before.”
The City of Vancouver is the province’s only municipality governed by the Vancouver Charter, and the park board is the country’s only elected body of its kind. So that adds up to make the city’s situation unique.
“We wouldn’t be having this conversation if we were in Surrey or Burnaby or anywhere,” Stewart said.
Stewart’s proposal would require a vote of the park board and city council.
Park board chair Stuart Mackinnon said Tuesday he thinks Stewart’s proposal is unlikely to receive the required support of two-thirds of the current park board commissioners.
“My question is: Why would the mayor want to do this?” said Mackinnon, who represents the Green party. “I would think it’s a very drastic move.”
In 2014, when a previous tent city in Oppenheimer grew large, the park board of the day got a court injunction to clear the area.
In July, four weeks before the park board’s evacuation notice was posted, Global News reported that Stewart said there were no immediate plans, at that time, to seek an injunction to clear Oppenheimer.
Asked Tuesday if his views have changed on an injunction, Stewart said that decision rests with the park board. However, if the board did agree to transfer control of Oppenheimer, Stewart said all options, including an injunction, would be considered.
“It’s not necessarily an injunction. There may be other ways of talking to the other levels of government; there may be other ways forward, but we need that option on the table.”
At the time of the 2014 injunction, the composition of the park board was different than today: the majority of park board commissioners were affiliated with then-mayor Gregor Robertson’s Vision Vancouver party.
But Stewart, as Vancouver’s first independent mayor in a generation, does not have any party colleagues on the park board, which is made up of three commissioners from the Greens, two from COPE and two from the NPA.
In 2014, after the deadline passed for the court’s order to clear the park, three men and two women were arrested by police after failing to comply with the injunction.
Stewart said he respects the role of protesters and activists in a democratic society.
In March 2018, Stewart was arrested and charged with breaching an injunction for protesting the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project. Stewart, who was the NDP member of Parliament for Burnaby South at the time, pleaded guilty.
Asked Tuesday how his own arrest would affect the prospect of the city enforcing an injunction in Oppenheimer, Stewart replied that it’s a matter of “individual decisions” for those involved.
“As people making a point, you make those decisions, but the consequences are not dire, in the sense that it’s not a criminal record,” Stewart said.
Stewart has previously said that, with his new role and responsibilities as mayor, he has no intention of getting arrested again for breaching injunctions. It remains to be seen, though, if anyone else will be arrested in Oppenheimer in the coming weeks.
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