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‘It’s so sad’: Senior mourns loss of neighbourhood safety due to Oppenheimer Park camp

Resident upset over Oppenheimer Park impacts
A woman who has lived in the Downtown Eastside for 60 years is calling on the City of Vancouver to address the homeless camp in Oppenheimer Park, which is making her feel unsafe in her own neighbourhood. Jordan Armstrong reports.

Gladys Lee has lived in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside for more than 60 years.

But ever since a homeless camp began to grow in nearby Oppenheimer Park last year, she says her concerns have fallen on the deaf ears of the Vancouver Park Board.

“I love this neighbourhood. This is my community. We are totally being kept in prison from the tent city,” Lee said on Friday.

More than 100 people are living in the public park, which has seen an increase in police calls due to assaults, fires and shootings. Vancouver’s first homicide of 2020 started with an assault in the park on New Year’s Day.

READ MORE: Vancouver mayor says he has plan for Oppenheimer Park campers. He’s just waiting for housing

Lee used to volunteer at the park, but for the past year, she says she hasn’t felt safe there.

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“It’s so sad. It hurts so much, and it makes me very depressed,” she said.

“A lot of people in this neighbourhood feel the same way. I mean, who wants to wake up every morning and see this garbage? And what goes on here at night … I won’t go out at night myself.”

Vancouver mayor, police chief voice frustrations over Oppenheimer Park inaction
Vancouver mayor, police chief voice frustrations over Oppenheimer Park inaction

Lee, who uses a mobility scooter, says she and her neighbours have been robbed of their only accessible green space in the community.

“I used to do arts and crafts with children here, once a week,” she said. “And that brought me out to be social. I don’t see that anymore. It’s gone.”

READ MORE: Who’s in charge of Oppenheimer Park? Activists say they are, and park board doesn’t disagree

Calls for the park board to address the encampment have been growing for weeks, and reached a tipping point with the death of 62-year-old Jesus Cristobal-Esteban.

While some commissioners have repeatedly motioned for an injunction, the majority voted in December for a third-party review of the situation, leaving campers and activists to claim they’re in control of the park.

The board said Monday they are in the final stages of selecting that third party, which will be contracted to help find a housing-first solution based on Indigenous reconciliation.

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Oppenheimer Park not discussed at Vancouver Park Board meeting
Oppenheimer Park not discussed at Vancouver Park Board meeting

The park board has refused offers from Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart and council to take over jurisdiction of the park, leading Stewart to ask the province if they can step in.

“I did have discussions with the provincial government about this, about the range of authority — not dissolving the park board or anything like that, but the ability to transfer jurisdiction — and they can’t either,” he said at Thursday’s Vancouver Police Board meeting.

At that meeting, Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer repeated his own calls for an injunction, which the department has been pushing for months.

READ MORE: ‘How is that better?’ Clearing Oppenheimer Park will leave homeless in alleys: commissioner

“The statistics we’ve provided have shown that there is a lot of criminality happening there,” he said. “It’s a dangerous place.”

Palmer also confirmed that police cannot move into the park and clear the campers on their own.

“We’ve looked at all the different legal avenues and the City Charter is very clear,” he said. “That is a legal hurdle we do have where we can’t just move in and take action.”

Who’s in control of Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park?
Who’s in control of Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park?

At Monday’s first park board meeting of 2020, Oppenheimer Park was not on the public agenda.

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Still, board chair Camil Dumont insists it is a priority.

“It is, I would say, our top priority,” he told Focus BC Friday. “We’re all working together to get a solution that works for everyone, certainly as quickly as possible.”

Stewart has said he is working on securing multiple levels of housing with the goal of transitioning people into the housing market, though he admitted his plan is not focused exclusively on Oppenheimer but for all the city’s homeless.

READ MORE: Oppenheimer Park response left off park board agenda for first meeting since homicide

Campers in the park argue existing housing and shelter space being offered by the city’s outreach teams is not adequate and doesn’t address the needs of campers who are elderly, disabled or suffering from mental health issues.

Lee says she’s lost confidence in the park board or the city to solve the problem.

“We have a voice and you should listen to us for a change, instead of listening to the people [at the homeless camp],” she said.

—With files from Richard Zussman