The Vancouver Buddhist Temple in the heart of the city’s old Japantown has been a fortress for spirituality since 1904.
But members say that earlier this month, the temple’s secure underground garage was no match for increasing crime linked to an unsanctioned tent city in a public park across the street.
“Our sense of security is definitely not here anymore with the camping,” said Vancouver Buddhist Temple president Dave Ohori.
The temple on Jackson Avenue in the Downtown Eastside is adjacent to Oppenheimer Park, which spent 27 years as home turf for the Vancouver Asahi baseball team.
The Asahi formed in 1914 and was a source of pride in Vancouver’s Nikkei community, winning several championships before being forced to disband after Canada declared war on Japan in 1941.
Since late 2018, the baseball diamond at Oppenheimer Park has been surrounded by a sprawling homeless encampment.
Many Buddhist temple members are seniors who remember the park for its pre-WWII history as the home of the famed Asahi, and say they no longer feel safe in the neighbourhood.
“It’s very disappointing to see the area deteriorate in such a huge magnitude,” Ohori told Global News.
“There’s fear,” said Vancouver Buddhist Temple member Patrick Couling. “Parents are not bringing their kids here much anymore.”
As attendance declines, crime is shooting up.
On Jan. 18, the temple’s garage was broken into, one day after an event that brought volunteers together to prepare traditional Japanese desserts for a March fundraising event.
Among the $5,000 in items discovered missing were 1,500 homemade and fresh frozen Manju pastries that were to be sold at the upcoming fundraiser, and tents from the Powell Street Festival.
Last summer, organizers were forced to move the 2019 festival out of Oppenheimer Park so as not to displace any campers.
Ohori says the garage door was tripped and left open for around 24 hours, during which time surveillance video recorded dozens of people coming in and out, treating the temple’s property like a flea market.
“There was a lot of people going through here, going through all our stuff and doing drugs and just whatever they could get their hands on, just to carry it out,” said Ohori.
“They had a wheelbarrow of ours. They started carrying it different directions, to Oppenheimer, to (the Powell Street Getaway resource centre) next door, so like a free for all.”
Temple staff reviewed security footage and recognized many of the looters as individuals living in Oppenheimer Park who they had interacted with previously.
They say they were able to recover 80 per cent of the stolen stuff, including many of the Powell Street Festival tents, during a walk-through of the park the next morning.
“The sight of just having our items all over at Oppenheimer Park was very disheartening,” said Ohori.
“The situation is very difficult for everyone,” added Vancouver Buddhist Temple board member Greg Chor.
While much of the property was recovered, temple members say their sense of security won’t be restored until Oppenheimer Park becomes a safe public space again.
“The Japanese people and the Buddhists aren’t really the type of people to complain but we felt that we’ve been let down,” said Ohori.
The temple members recognize that many of the people camping in the park are in crisis, but say something needs to be done.
“It’s essential that at some point that park be accessible to the folks in the community as it has been,” Vancouver Park Board Chair Camil Dumont told Global News Sunday.
“There’s lots of programming that happened at the field house there, and there’s lots of folks who really need access to that greenspace and their voice is in no way lost on us.”
Dumont said he wasn’t comfortable giving any “artificial timelines” on when Oppenheimer would be returned to its use as a public park because he thinks that’s counterproductive, but the situation has been festering for months.
On Sept. 26, 2019, the park board’s Green-COPE majority voted for a “collaborative decampment” at Oppenheimer Park, rather than forcing people out with a court order.
Non-Partisan Association (NPA) park commissioners Tricia Barker and John Coupar have pushed for an injunction, which is also supported by city staff, the Vancouver Police Department, and Vancouver Fire Rescue Services due to increasing safety concerns at the park.
When asked why they did not heed the advice of city staff, police and fire officials last fall, Dumont says he, fellow Green Party commissioners Stuart Mackinnon and Dave Demers and COPE commissioner John Irwin were very concerned with repeating past decisions and behaviours that have led to the current situation.
“There was an injunction sought in 2008 and as well in 2014, specifically at Oppenheimer Park,” said Dumont.
“And you know, repeating the same sort of strategy and the same decision-making process that took place then and expecting a different result, is a little bit wrongheaded.”
On Dec. 9, 2019, the park board voted to oppose an immediate clearing of the park in favour of hiring a third party to find a solution based on First Nations reconciliation.
Oppenheimer Park ended up being the scene of at least 10 shootings last year, while 2020 began with the public park recording the city’s first murder of the year.
As of Jan. 26, Dumont says the elected body is still in the final stages of acquiring a third party for the decampment plan, which will provide support for housing outreach and peer mentorship to those living in Oppenheimer Park.
Park board staff are also revising the current bylaw, which prohibits sleeping overnight in parks, to bring it in line with other municipalities to allow overnight camping in parks when no other shelter is available.
“From what I can see, there’s definitely not a lot of action at all,” said Ohori, whose temple has long been awaiting the return of its sense of community and safety.
“This is a public park and I’d like to see kids play or people playing baseball, and the Powell Street Festival use that park again.”