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After Oppenheimer Park homicide, homeless camp pushes back on safety concerns

Calls for an injunction increase after death at Oppenheimer Park
Critics of the Vancouver Park Board and the city insist something needs to be done now after a man died following an assault in Oppenheimer Park on New Year's Day.

The fatal assault of a man in Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park has critics renewing the push for an injunction against the homeless campers living there.

But advocates for those living inside the camp are continuing to push back against safety concerns, arguing more needs to be done to protect what they call a “neighbourhood.”

The assault that took place New Year’s Day sent 62-year-old Jesus Cristobal-Esteban to hospital, where he fell unconscious and died Thursday.

READ MORE: Fatal assault in Oppenheimer Park marks Vancouver’s first homicide of 2020

While he did not live in the camp, Cristobal-Esteban was described as “a daily visitor” and an elder in the Latino community following his death.

Chrissy Brett, a liaison for the residents of the encampment, said Saturday the incident should be an opportunity for the city to address the mental health and drug crises that have impacted people living in the camp.

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“We need safe supplies, we need more managed alcohol programs … we need to look at harm reduction and housing,” she said.

“We need more than just a mat on a floor in a shelter. We need modular housing, long-term housing. We need affordable housing for seniors.”

Vancouver’s first homicide in Oppenheimer Park
Vancouver’s first homicide in Oppenheimer Park

The city says its outreach teams continue to offer shelter space and short-term housing for people, after moving dozens of camp occupants into BC Housing units last year.

Brett added the city needs to follow through on earlier approvals for warming tents and washrooms, which have yet to materialize.

The Vancouver Fire Department has pushed back on the idea of having warming tents with propane heaters over safety concerns, saying it goes against the current fire safety order for the park.

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

The city has since echoed those concerns, pointing to fires and explosions at other encampments in Metro Vancouver that had warming tents, including in Maple Ridge.

But Brett said the fact that the city and the Vancouver Park Board have provided warming tents for public events like the Polar Bear Swim and the Christmas light display at VanDusen Botanical Gardens is proof that they’re being discriminatory.

“If you’re rich and you have money, then you have entitlement to the most basic human rights, even though that’s not your shelter and it’s just a place to visit,” she said.

Brett pointed to the camp’s 24-hour overdose prevention site as an example of how it addresses safety.

New plans for Oppenheimer Park
New plans for Oppenheimer Park

Other overdose prevention sites in the city shut down at night, she said, leaving drug users to either come to the camp or risk dying in the streets.

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As for the death of Cristobal-Esteban, Brett wouldn’t speak to what should happen to the suspect, but pushed back on suggestions that the homicide should lead to an injunction for the other campers.

“Every time there’s criminal activity in [single-room occupancy housing], do you see calls to get that shut down?” she asked.

“When there’s a shooting in Surrey, do we have any calls for the people responsible for that shooting to have their neighbourhood shut down? Why is there a double standard and stigma between homeless people and housed people?”

The city and the Vancouver Park Board have spent months arguing over whether to force the campers out through an injunction or wait until adequate housing is built first.

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

Tricia Barker, one of two park board commissioners who have been calling for an injunction, says the homicide is proof that her safety concerns have been justified and renewed her calls for a court order.

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“It’s devastating,” she said. “We have been worried this was going to happen for months and months.”

In December, the park board voted 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.

No timeline has been set for when that consultation will take place or be completed. The park board doesn’t reconvene until later this month.

Renewed calls for action as police investigate yet another violent incident at Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park
Renewed calls for action as police investigate yet another violent incident at Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park

Some city councillors have also called for an injunction, but Mayor Kennedy Stewart’s requests for the park board to hand jurisdiction of the park over to the city have been rebuffed.

Residents living near the park are also saying they’re fed up with the ongoing encampment in the public park, and the city’s inability to address it.

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“Why do the rest of us citizens have to suffer?” said Elizabeth Sliwkainich, who is raising her child in the neighbourhood.

“My son can’t even play in a park anymore because it’s trashed.”

—With files from Paul Johnson