With safety concerns being raised once again in Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park, statistics obtained by Global News show police calls to the Downtown Eastside public park have increased by more than 50 per cent so far this year over last.
But despite the spike and rising city costs, there’s no sign the longstanding homeless encampment will be cleared anytime soon.
Since the start of 2019, Nigel Baker has watched his neighbourhood space of 13 years deteriorate to dangerous levels due to a criminal element entrenched in Oppenheimer.
“The violence and stuff that’s happened here, it’s ridiculous,” Baker said. “You got people being raped in here, you got people being stabbed, people being shot.”
Vancouver police numbers reveal police calls to Oppenheimer Park between Jan. 1 and Oct. 31 of this year are up 53 per cent over the same period last year.
Two sexual assaults are included in the serious call breakdown for 2019 so far.
Shots fired have increased 800 per cent — from one call by the end of October 2018 to nine calls by the same time this year.
Weapons calls tripled from 18 in 2018 to 54 so far in 2019. Assaults in progress are up 17 per cent, from 24 last year to 28 in 2019.
While assault reports are down 22 per cent and fights have decreased 45 per cent — from 29 calls last year to 16 in 2019 — the city of Vancouver is now sounding the alarm over the safety of campers, after tents were destroyed in two recent fires believed to have been sparked by propane heaters and barbecues.
By the end of October 2018, there were two sudden deaths recorded in the DTES park. So far this year, there are no known fatalities.
But Tricia Barker, one of two NPA Vancouver Park Board commissioners who support an injunction to clear the park, fears it’s only a matter of time as winter looms and the weather worsens.
“I’m afraid someone’s going to die, it’s getting colder,” Barker told Global News.
Efforts to clear park stalled
Campers were served eviction notices on Aug. 19 after the city and the park board issued a general manager’s order requiring all tents and structures be removed by the evening of Aug. 21.
The city said it would work with its Carnegie Outreach team to offer homes to campers who wished to move indoors.
By Aug. 23, the city said more than 100 campers had accepted offers of supportive housing.
At the end of September, when a few dozen campers refused to leave, the park board voted against forcing people out with a court order.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Nigel Baker. “All this says is that anybody, if you have enough people, can go and just appropriate a piece of land in the city.”
In October, city council voted for a “collaborative decampment” plan “with options that are better for people dealing with homelessness in parks than their current situation.”
Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung, also with the NPA, says an injunction is long overdue to move people into shelters or housing.
“I haven’t heard that we’ve been successful in housing any additional people since the park board decided not to pursue an injunction,” she said.
“What we’re doing now is not working.”
One middle-aged homeless couple who does not stay in Oppenheimer for safety reasons — and who asked to remain anonymous over fears of retaliation from those living in the park — alleges that campers from out of province are jumping the queue on housing wait lists.
The city says its outreach staff continue to work to move people indoors, and have been connecting campers with nearby warming shelters when temperatures hit -5 degrees Celsius or below.
No plans to change response
Global News asked the Vancouver Park Board if it believes its collaborative decampment approach is working to maintain public safety and house any campers seeking housing — and if it will reconsider an injunction in light of the year-to-year spike in crime.
In an email, the park board said it was not able to provide anyone for an interview this weekend, and instead sent a statement that did not answer the above questions.
“The Park Board continues to be concerned about the welfare and safety of people experiencing homelessness in Oppenheimer Park, as well as the surrounding community,” the statement reads.
Barker says to get an injunction now, one of the four park board commissioners who originally voted to withhold the injunction would have to alter their vote.
“I’m terribly frustrated about what is going on and this has been going on for months,” said Barker. “Unless one of the other park board commissioners changes their mind, we don’t even get to vote on it again.”
Meantime, the costs of managing Oppenheimer Park are soaring, with taxpayers on the hook for the growing bill.
“It’s been a million dollars so far in 2019,” said Kirby-Yung.
On Tuesday, the city is expected to vote on its 2020 budget, which includes a new line item of another $1 million for servicing costs to maintain the encampment, something Kirby-Yung says the city had no control over.
“We’re left holding the bag on the expenses,” she said. “That’s $2 million right there. I’d rather see that money go towards other homeless supports and services.”
Global News asked the Vancouver Park Board how the current costs of managing Oppenheimer compare to the price tag associated with managing similar-sized public parks in the city, but did not receive a response.
Nigel Baker, who used to be homeless himself many years ago, says he sympathizes with the campers — but there’s a limit to what they can and can’t do.
“You just can’t go set up shop in a public park,” he said.
Unless, it seems, you’re in Vancouver.