After latest Oppenheimer Park shooting, critics ask: will it take a death to spark change?

Renewed calls for action as police investigate yet another violent incident at Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park
Frustration is growing as the public seeks a solution to ongoing problems associated with the Downtown Eastside encampment. It follows another shooting that's sent one person to hospital. Nadia Stewart reports.

Will someone have to die before the City of Vancouver acts to address an entrenched homeless camp in Oppenheimer Park?

That’s the question critics are asking a day after the third shooting at the park in the last six months. Vancouver police said Thursday night’s shooting left a man in hospital with serious injuries.

READ MORE: 1 man in hospital after shooting at Oppenheimer Park

Park commissioner John Coupar renewed his call for an injunction to clear the park Friday.

Vancouver Park Board now says it has plan to deal with Oppenheimer Park tent city
Vancouver Park Board now says it has plan to deal with Oppenheimer Park tent city

“It’s just gone on too long,” he said.

“The Green-COPE coalition at park board has been reluctant to move. They want to find housing for everybody.

“The problem is we’re not the board of housing, we’re the park board.”

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The Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation voted earlier this week to give its general manager the power to seek a court injunction to remove the campers — but only after a series of stringent conditions were met, including bringing in a third-party consultant.

READ MORE: Should Vancouver emulate San Diego’s response to the crisis of homelessness?

“With the shooting and with another shooting recently related to Oppenheimer Park I’m concerned that it’s only a matter of time before we unfortunately do see a death,” said Vancouver Coun. Melissa De Genova.

“I don’t want to fear monger … but do I lose sleep over this? In fact I do.”

Police have repeatedly warned about a growing criminal element preying on the park’s homeless residents, and firefighters have raised alarms about dangerous warming devices being used in the camp’s tents. There were two fires at the camp in recent weeks.

New calls for sanctioned tent city in Vancouver
New calls for sanctioned tent city in Vancouver

De Genova served on the Vancouver park board in 2014, the last time a homeless camp sprung up in Oppenheimer Park. One person died in that camp.

De Genova said despite the fractious political relationship between her Non-Partisan Association (NPA) and the then-governing Vision Vancouver majority, the parties agreed an injunction was necessary.

She said firmer action is necessary given that even when offered housing this summer, some of the current campers elected to stay.

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READ MORE: ‘A million dollars so far’: Oppenheimer Park camp sees rising city costs, 53% spike in police calls

“BC Housing, within a week in late August, was able to find everyone who wanted housing, housing. But there were some people who still refused to leave the encampment.”

Oppenheimer Park is in the jurisdiction of the Vancouver park board, and the city’s mayor deferred questions Friday to that body.

The park board cancelled a scheduled press conference Friday morning and board chair Stuart MacKinnon declined an interview request.

READ MORE: City renews safety concerns in Oppenheimer Park after fires sparked by propane heaters

Supporters of the camp argue the city — and the camp’s detractors — aren’t serious about the safety of the city’s homeless.

Advocates for the homeless gathered at Oppenheimer Park Friday to “celebrate one-year of resilience” in the face of housing and drug crises.

“We only displace people from camps when we are looking for excuses to get rid of the visible manifestations of homelessness and poverty that are the results of government action,” said Anna Cooper with the Pivot Legal Society.

Another shooting near Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park sparks concerns
Another shooting near Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park sparks concerns

“If the city was really concerned with people’s safety we would be talking about not just the housing crisis but the opioid crisis,” said camp spokesperson Chrissy Brett.

“When the city talks about how they came up with an amazing plan to house 100 people, there were people literally dying in the streets, including my niece who was completely forgotten … during their unorganized plan to decamp back in August.

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“Their plan didn’t create any new modular housing or new placements.”

Frustration over Park Board oversight of Oppenheimer Park
Frustration over Park Board oversight of Oppenheimer Park

Fiona York with the Carnegie Community Action Project touted the community and self-governance structure she said had evolved in the camp in year-plus since it sprung up.

“We have a community council, we have peers who sport our 24/7 overdose prevention site,” she said.

“People come here for that sense of safety and belonging.”

Year to date police calls to Oppenheimer Park up more than 50%
Year to date police calls to Oppenheimer Park up more than 50%

Downtown Vancouver Business Association president and CEO Charles Gauthier says in addition to drawing a disproportionate amount of city and policing resources, leaving the camp as it is remains inhumane.

“It sort of reminds me of how we wait until we get to a critical juncture [to act]”, said Gauthier.

“The 2011 Occupy Vancouver event that was on the front plaza of the Vancouver Art Gallery, at the time, it took the death of a young woman due to a suspected overdose to get the city to move in and get the injunction.”

Gauthier has advocated looking at San Diego’s model to address the homelessness issue. That city has built temporary shelter structures with hostel-like accommodations and bathrooms, which are staffed by outreach workers.

Shooting of woman boosts calls for action on Oppenheimer Park tent city
Shooting of woman boosts calls for action on Oppenheimer Park tent city

He said the City of Vancouver has expressed little interest in the idea, but the company behind the hard-shelled tent structures has reached out to him for a meeting next week.

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He said if homelessness truly is a “crisis,” we should treat it as such, adding that temporary housing of the type he advocates would spring up in no time if there were a major earthquake.

“Letting people live in tents in a park with those dangerous situations that are occurring, either for their own safety or public safety, why [is] that acceptable, and why aren’t we looking at things like these types of shelters?” he said.

READ MORE: Woman injured in Oppenheimer Park shooting was ‘accidentally’ shot by her son: police

READ MORE: Toilet trouble sparks war of words at Oppenheimer Park

The next steps around the park remain unclear. The park board has provided no timeline for the hiring of its third-party consultant, and will not reconvene until 2020.

The board has also not made clear how it will accomplish the other conditions required to get an injunction: finding a way to get campers to leave voluntarily and only when there is enough housing or shelter space, and doing so in accordance with the principles of reconciliation.

-With files from Nadia Stewart