Who’s in charge of Oppenheimer Park?
Technically, the Downtown Eastside public park remains under the jurisdiction of the Vancouver Park Board. But the elected body has done little to address the homeless camp whose residents refuse to leave.
Those campers say they’re getting along just fine without government stepping in.
“It really does have its own way of running itself with or without the government,” camp liaison Chrissy Brett said Friday, adding the camp is operating exactly how she envisioned.
“My vision is that there be a space in every municipality that’s run not by government, but by community,” she said.
On Wednesday night, campers responded to a letter from the city informing them to use the public Powell Street Getaway warming shelter across the street during the current cold snap by opening their own warming tent.
The tent, which is powered by two donated propane heaters, comes after months of requests for a similar structure, which have been denied by the city and the fire department over safety concerns and fire hazards.
Brett said the camp had no choice but to take matters into its own hands.
“We have people sleeping in our bathrooms,” she said. “We have people crying because they’re cold and they don’t feel safe going to warming stations, which are low barrier. There’s no place for the elderly or disabled, or have PTSD and don’t feel emotionally safe.”
Concerns over safety at the camp have been rising as the number of campers has grown to over 100, with several more visiting the park daily.
Vancouver’s first homicide of 2020 occurred in the park, which has also seen a rise in police and fire calls since last year over assaults, shootings and tent fires from propane heaters and barbecues. The city says it has spent over $1 million at Oppenheimer alone.
Over a hundred other people used to live in the camp until last summer when the park board requested people move into single-room occupancy housing that had been made available for them.
Those campers took the city up on the offer, while the rest refused to move and the camp began to grow again.
The city says its outreach teams are in the park daily continuing to offer housing, shelter and other support but says forcefully removing the campers with a court order is up to the park board.
That’s where the impasse begins. Only two commissioners have supported an injunction, but they’ve been outvoted by the majority, who are seeking a solution through Indigenous reconciliation in collaboration with the city that seeks housing supports first.
“I don’t want to see anyone in the park,” said John Coupar, one of those two pro-injunction commissioners. “It’s not a good situation over there, and I sympathize with those people … but I think we need to make sure our parks are clean and safe for everybody.”
Coupar said shelters and other forms of housing are open, and that there’s “no reason” for people to be living in the park.
A third-party review of how to move campers into housing in a safe manner is currently underway, with no timeline for when that will be complete.
Park board chair Camil Dumont said he and the other commissioners are hopeful they can move forward “at some point” toward turning the park back into “what we all envision when we think of a park.”
But he said the answer of who is in charge of the park — the board or the activists — is a “mix.”
“The park itself is kind of a space where there are many jurisdictions that have influence and importance, including the park board,” he said. “Also, it’s their space, it’s the community’s space and public space as well.”
Commissioner Stuart Mackinnon wasn’t initially eager to answer questions Friday, only stopping to refer back to the third-party review.
“We are doing our best at Oppenheimer Park,” he said. “We made a decision in the summer that we would not throw people onto the streets, and that is what we’re working on: finding accommodation for them.”
Attorney General David Eby said he, along with the ministers of housing and poverty reduction, are watching the “very serious” situation at the park closely.
But he confirmed any action taken to move the campers out of the park and into housing is under the park board’s jurisdiction, and the province has no authority.
“Obviously homelessness is a very serious issue, not just in Vancouver but across the province,” he said while talking up the investments the NDP government have made into housing.
“It’s obviously a very serious issue for the people in that community living in the tent city who don’t have any other choice about where they live.”
—With files from Jordan Armstrong