The next steps in the city’s approach to an entrenched homeless camp at Oppenheimer Park got a little bit clearer on Friday — and it won’t just be Vancouver taxpayers who will be covering the costs.
Provincial agency BC Housing has hired the non-profit Portland Hotel Society (PHS) to help find housing for the camp’s residents.
Addressing that issue is a key requirement under the Vancouver Park Board’s “decampment” plan for the park, before it can apply for a court injunction to remove the campers.
BC Housing said under the agreement, two full-time outreach workers will connect individuals with shelters and housing “as it becomes available” and provide support services, including working with Indigenous partners to provide culturally appropriate services.
The agreement will stay in place while the city and province “continue to develop short and long-term solutions for people experiencing homelessness throughout the city,” the agency added.
PHS director of housing Tanya Fader said the contract lasts until the end of March, although she expects that will be extended.
However, she noted the society’s contract isn’t limited to Oppenheimer Park.
“We’re doing enhanced outreach in the entire neighbourhood — specifically around people who are sleeping outside,” she said, referring to the surrounding Downtown Eastside.
Fader said workers are already in the park “building trust” with the campers, who agreed to the PHS’s presence.
She added she’s confident a notable change could be seen in the park by the spring as campers move into housing, but that will depend on available housing stock. That confidence comes from PHS’s history with addressing other homeless enampments.
“We have staff who have become de facto experts in this work,” she said. “We’ve moved other tent cities inside … most notably in Victoria.”
The park board confirmed that PHS had been hired, but would not explain why the decision was made by a provincial agency when the board has jurisdiction over the park.
Questions about why the action took 18 months after the camp sprang up were also not answered by the board Friday, who did not make anyone available for an interview.
Global News has also learned that a meeting with campers and stakeholders is planned at the park for 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, but the board said such meetings are held weekly and is not a result of PHS’s hiring.
The park board voted on its decampment plan on Dec. 9, which includes finding a solution through Indigenous reconciliation in collaboration with the city, and hiring a third-party consultant to address housing for the camp’s residents.
The Strathcona Business Improvement Association, which sent a letter to elected officials earlier this month expressing concerns, welcomed the development.
But executive director Theodora Lamb said there are a lot of conversations that still need to happen and plenty of work to do.
“It’s the businesses we’re focused on. Are they feeling like they can run their businesses, they can meet their bottom line, they can take care of their employees?” she asked.
“We need this community to not just survive but thrive, and that means having a thriving economy, and that means having businesses that have open doors that aren’t gated, that the residents feel like they can participate, step in and out and that everyone can be involved.”
Vancouver police have argued there is a “direct nexus” between the camp and growing crime and disorder in the neighbourhood, and have cited statistics showing a marked increase in call volume in the area.
Earlier this month, a well-known community volunteer died after he was brutally beaten in the park.
Members of the Vancouver Buddhist Temple, which is across the street from the park, have also raised growing concerns about the spread of problems from the park.
Thieves broke into the temple parkade earlier this month, with the majority of stolen items allegedly turning up in Oppenheimer and the Living Room drop-in centre next door.
Someone even went to extreme lengths to steal a statue of Buddha intended to ward off troublemakers.
“You can’t be angry; people here have definitely a lot of challenges,” said Dave Ohori, temple president.
Ohori said the Buddhist community feels let down by the response to the camp, and that attendance is significantly down.
Non-Partisan Association park board commissioners John Coupar and Tricia Barker have been arguing for months that the city needs to take a more aggressive approach and to seek an injunction immediately.
The board majority has refused to take that step, and has also repeatedly denied the city’s efforts to take over jurisdiction of the park.
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.
— With files form Jordan Armstrong