Vancouver police are once again raising concerns over safety at Oppenheimer Park, pointing to an increase in weapon seizures, violence and gang activity in the area.
Police said Thursday the number of emergency calls to the Downtown Eastside park has gone up 87 per cent between June and August of this year compared to 2018, from 202 calls to 378.
The number also marks an increase from the last time police raised the issue in July. At that time, police said there had been 179 emergency calls between May and June, compared to 112 during the same period last year.
WATCH: (Sept. 9) Homeless activists take tent city to Vancouver City Hall
“We first raised this issue publicly in July, and it has only gotten worse,” Deputy Chief Const. Howard Chow said in a media release.
“Since the beginning of the year there has been a significant spike in crime and street disorder stemming out of Oppenheimer Park, and sprawling into the Downtown Eastside.”
Police said that activity has led to an increase in weapons seizures from the park and the surrounding area, including firearms.
Between June and August of this year, 17 weapons have been seized from Oppenheimer, police said, with 476 weapons seized from a seven-block area in the Downtown Eastside known as the Beat Enforcement Area (BET).
The weapons include firearms, knives, bats and bear spray.
Both of those areas are included in a district that spans from Cambie Street to Boundary Street and from Broadway to the Burrard Inlet, where police say 223 guns have been seized so far this year.
In contrast, 227 guns have been seized across the other three police districts of the city combined.
“In my 30-plus years with the VPD, I have never seen such high numbers of weapons seized in one district alone,” Chow said. “The numbers almost average out to one gun seized each day so far this year.”
It’s not clear how many of those firearms originated from Oppenheimer Park.
Chow says he’s also become concerned about an increase in violent confrontations with police officers, which have gone up 68 per cent across the district.
Last weekend, police say officers were pelted with bottles by bystanders while responding to an incident in Oppenheimer Park.
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Police say gangs have also been vying for territory within the park, “creating a dangerous and volatile situation for residents in the park and the surrounding area.”
Tensions between police, the city, homeless people living within the park, and nearby residents have been building throughout the year.
A tent city that numbered more than 200 campers inside Oppenheimer was mostly shut down after the city and the Vancouver Park Board worked to get many of the campers into single room occupancy (SRO) hotel housing.
Other campers who either refused to move into the housing or only live in the camp part-time have since accused the city of not doing enough to house all homeless people in Vancouver.
Vancouver’s latest homeless count found 2,223 homeless people in the city, the highest level since 2002 and the result of four consecutive years of increases.
The park board has said it will not seek a court injunction to clear the remaining campers out of the park, calling for a “multi-jurisdictional task force” to address homelessness in the city.
Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart has said the park board should give temporary jurisdiction of the park to the city, which he said is better prepared to handle the issues underpinning the tent city.
The park board has not yet approved Stewart’s request.
The parks board said in a statement Thursday it is waiting for a detailed plan from the mayor and council on how the transfer of jurisdiction would work and also address the needs at the park.
The city added it has staff and support workers at the park daily to help connect more people to housing if they need it.
WATCH: (Sept. 7) Future of homeless campers at Oppenheimer Park
Advocates for the campers, including the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP), have said safety concerns from the city and police did not reflect reality, adding many of them felt safer in the park than in the street.
Fiona York with the CCAP said that feeling hasn’t changed despite the latest police warning.
“They keep saying it’s increased compared to last year, but last year there wasn’t a homeless camp,” she said. “So of course there’s going to be more calls now.”
She said she hasn’t heard of or experienced any interactions with gang members, adding she and other advocates are often in the park every day.