Advocates for Oppenheimer Park campers call police and city’s safety concerns unfounded

Tents set up within Vancouver's Oppenheimer Park on Friday, June 28, 2019. Jordan Armstrong/Global News

Advocates overseeing dozens of campers living in Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park are pushing back against claims from Vancouver police and city workers that they feel unsafe in the park.

In fact, members of the Carnegie Community Action Project claim they and the campers feel safer inside the park than they would on the street, which is where they would be otherwise.

“I come here almost every night, and I have never felt unsafe,” the group’s coordinator and administrator Fiona York said Saturday.

“I’ve never personally witnessed or experienced anything. Speaking to people who stay here, they said the same thing.”

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Tensions between the city and the tent city, which now numbers more than 100 tents, reached a fever pitch Thursday after a nearby shooting sent a man to hospital.

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In response to the shooting, Vancouver police spokesperson Sgt. Jason Robillard said they’ve seen “a sharp increase in the level of violence in and around the encampment at Oppenheimer Park in recent months.”

READ MORE: Shooting near Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park sends man to hospital

Robillard also said officers often feel like they need to patrol the area in groups to avoid abuse and harassment, saying they’re often seen as targets.

The City of Vancouver also said it has grown “increasingly worried” over “growing non-compliance” with a fire chief’s order imposed over safety and fire concerns at the park.

But York says fire orders allow the city and police to frame the tent city as a public safety issue, rather than a homeless issue.

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That allows the city to delay housing measures that would get the campers out of the park altogether.

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“It seems like the concern is more external, rather than for the people living here,” she said. “Our compassion and our concern should be for those most vulnerable, which is people who are homeless and living in a park.”

York says tent cities are considered by advocates as “harm reduction zones” where people unable to locate housing find more safety in communities than by themselves on the street.

READ MORE: Vancouver business leader proposes sanctioned camp site, services for homeless

“We find people say they are less likely to overdose, more likely to survive freezing temperatures, more likely to avoid harassment,” she said. “Where they feel more vulnerable is with the lack of housing.

“It seems that with so many vulnerable people staying in one place, there should be an extra level of care given,” she said.

According to police, there were 179 emergency calls in Oppenheimer Park in May and June. Police say they received 112 calls during the same two-month period last year.

But York says there was no tent city in the park at that time last year, which speaks to the larger issue of housing.

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“To me, what that would actually say is that if you have people housed and safe and not staying in a tent city in a park, you would be twice as safe,” she said.

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Not far away at Crab Park, the Union Gospel Mission (UGM) was holding its annual summer barbecue that was moved from Oppenheimer Park out of “respect” for the campers.

UGM spokesperson Jeremy Hunka says the continuing issues at the tent city speaks not to problems with the campers, but to frustration over a lack of options.

“There’s people there who are really struggling,” he said. “Many have health concerns, some are struggling with mental health, addiction, trauma, grief. Some are in a really bad spot due to the financial crisis or just having a bad time in their lives.

“That’s the real crisis here.”

READ MORE: Oppenheimer Park campers displace more events, but organizers say ‘no problem’

Hunka said more needs to be done to make housing affordable for the city’s most vulnerable, including modular housing, along with mental health and detox resources.

“Until we get a handle on this, there’s going to be more people at risk living in places like Oppenheimer and struggling,” he said.

The city said this week it is working with the Vancouver Park Board and BC Housing to connect campers with services and housing.

City council and the park board have both approved motions calling for additional resources inside the park, including storage and washrooms. No timeline has been given for those services to be installed.

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Vancouver police and the city did not respond to numerous requests for comment Saturday.

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