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Park Board votes for ‘collaborative’ decampment of Oppenheimer Park, but no injunction

Vancouver police officers watch over tent city at Oppenheimer park in downtown Vancouver, Wednesday, August, 21, 2019. .
Vancouver police officers watch over tent city at Oppenheimer park in downtown Vancouver, Wednesday, August, 21, 2019. . THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

The Vancouver Park Board has voted for finding shelter for people experiencing homelessness camped in Oppenheimer Park, rather than forcing them out with a court order.

The vote happened after dozens took turns speaking for and against a court injunction that would clear homeless campers from the park at a special meeting Thursday night.

The meeting was called to address “deteriorating conditions” at the Downtown Eastside park, where police have reported an uptick in crime and violence throughout the summer.

Members of city staff and Vancouver’s police  and fire departments spoke in favour of an injunction, which the park board has resisted along with calls to hand over jurisdiction of the park to the city.

READ MORE: Park Board schedules special meeting amid ‘deteriorating conditions’ at Oppenheimer Park

The speakers all pointed to increased safety concerns, emergency calls and other issues within the park.

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After hearing from those speakers, Commissioner Camil Dumont put forward a motion emphasizing collaboration between the city and park board to find housing for the remaining campers, with decampment only coming once those housing strategies are put in place.

The motion was voted on and moved.

Commissioner John Coupar, who originally called for the special meeting, attempted to amend the motion to include seeking an injunction and clearing structures from the park.

WATCH: (Sept. 20) Growing safety concerns about Oppenheimer Park tent city

Growing safety concerns about Oppenheimer Park tent city
Growing safety concerns about Oppenheimer Park tent city

Board chair Stuart Mackinnon ruled Coupar’s request out of order, allowing speakers to begin addressing Dumont’s motion.

Ellie Taylor, who works with the Carnegie Community Action Project, said an injunction would be incredibly harmful to the campers if they have no where else to go.

“I was homeless for 10 years, and now I’m sitting here with all of you, at the same table, urging you to use compassion,” she said.

READ MORE: Police concerned over increased weapons, gang activity in Oppenheimer Park

Caitlin Shane, lawyer for Pivot Legal Society, said she and other lawyers have represented several other tent cities throughout the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island, arguing they’re safer than people living on the streets.

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“The fact that we have responded to so many tent cities should be proof that these aren’t going anywhere,” she said. “These are considered safe communities, and they should be supported.”

Growing problem

The Oppenheimer tent city grew to more than 200 campers over the summer.

In August, the bulk of those campers moved into single room occupancy (SRO) hotel housing, but many remained, accusing the city of not doing enough to provide housing options.

The number of campers in the parks have since begun to grow again, and police say the camp is acting as a “magnet” for criminal elements, while tying up police resources needed in the DTES and elsewhere in the city.

READ MORE: More police, camera headed to DTES after trio of shootings, escalating violence

Vancouver police Deputy Chief Const. Howard Chow told the board before the motion was introduced that weapons seizures have dramatically increased in the Downtown Eastside area surrounding Oppenheimer, repeating statistics police released earlier this month.

Chow said 476 weapons have been seized from within a seven-block area of the DTES between June and August of this year, with 17 of them coming from Oppenheimer Park.

Despite noting a similar increase of gun seizures from within a massive district of the city that includes the DTES, Chow clarified none of them came from Oppenheimer.

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Chow has also noted gangs have been vying for territory in the DTES and within the park itself, telling the board he fears “something very tragic” could happen.

WATCH: (Sept. 9) Homeless activists take tent city to Vancouver City Hall

Homeless activists take tent city to Vancouver City Hall
Homeless activists take tent city to Vancouver City Hall

Dumont’s motion partially echoes one set to be introduced at Monday’s Vancouver city council meeting by Coun. Jean Swanson, who is calling for housing, shelter and support strategies to be developed along with homeless and Indigenous people.

That motion will be joined on Monday by another calling for the city to support an injunction that clears the park while developing housing strategies.

Four councillors — Michael Wiebe, Lisa Dominato, Sarah Kirby-Yung and Pete Fry — drafted the motion in order to get the park decamped and open to the public again.

Kirby-Yung, Swanson and fellow Coun. Melissa DeGenova all spoke at the meeting.

READ MORE: Park board won’t evict Oppenheimer Park campers, wants homelessness task force

Swanson echoed the points made by homeless advocates, calling for solutions like the city buying a motel for the campers or housing them in an underground parkade downtown.

Kirby-Yung said her cross-party motion — she and Dominato are with the NPA, while Wiebe and Fry are Green Party councillors — shows strong support from the city for an injunction.

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“It’s not a tenable and sustainable solution to have people still camping out,” she said. “The weather’s getting colder. We’re seeing a lot of violence and associated safety issues in the area.

“You’ve got a serious issue facing your city, and it’s not about politics. It’s about people.”

—With files from Robyn Crawford