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‘A big surprise’: Oppenheimer Park sees remarkable turnaround with PHS intervention

Click to play video: 'Oppenheimer Park cleaner … but not yet cleaned up' Oppenheimer Park cleaner … but not yet cleaned up
WATCH: Oppenheimer Park cleaner ... but not yet cleaned up – Feb 20, 2020

It’s been three weeks since the province contracted the Portland Hotel Society (PHS) to conduct outreach in an entrenched homeless camp in Oppenheimer Park, and both residents and neighbours say the transformation has been remarkable.

“A big surprise, I’m really happy to see it,” said Patrick Couling, a member of the Vancouver Buddhist Temple across the street from the park.

READ MORE: Portland Hotel Society hired to help find housing for Oppenheimer Park homeless

“The park has been cleaned up, we have almost a sense of community now that we never had before. Certainly people are happier, you can see that.”

It’s a telling statement coming from the temple. Their facility was targeted twice in recent months, once by someone stealing a statue of Buddha, once when its parkade was broken into and looted.

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Click to play video: 'Shocking length thief goes to steal statue from Vancouver Buddhist Temple' Shocking length thief goes to steal statue from Vancouver Buddhist Temple
Shocking length thief goes to steal statue from Vancouver Buddhist Temple – Jan 30, 2020

PHS was contracted by BC Housing in late January, and has provided two outreach workers who will ideally help connect camp residents with housing, once it’s available.

There’s no timeline for that, said Duncan Higgon, senior manager of housing for PHS community services, adding that for now the plan is to connect with residents.

“I think that the deep outreach that we’re able to offer here is hopefully building community and building safety,” he said.

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

“[It’s] allowing people who actually live in this tent city to identify for us, and the people who are embedded here, their needs — the safety needs they have, the interventions that might make this a more livable environment.”
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Peer workers with the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society are also active in the park.

Oppenheimer camp liaison Chrissy Brett told Global News that paid peer support is a formula that works, pointing to the camp’s 24-hour peer overdose prevention site and warming tent, both operated by residents.

Click to play video: 'Housing for Oppenheimer Park’s homeless' Housing for Oppenheimer Park’s homeless
Housing for Oppenheimer Park’s homeless – Feb 1, 2020

“The park is starting to look back to being amazing, and paid peer support reduces crime,” she said.

But she added she’s not surprised it’s taken this long for things to improve.

“When you look at the advocacy for environmental issues or human rights issues, it’s something you can get behind, there’s something fuzzy and happy and amazing,” she said.

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

“It isn’t heartbreaking and dirty and living in a tent. [Homelessness is] just not something that people want to even acknowledge.”
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But while the improvement at the park is palpable — from less trash, to nearly daily community barbecues — Couling still wonders why it took so long.

Click to play video: 'Who’s in control of Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park?' Who’s in control of Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park?
Who’s in control of Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park? – Jan 17, 2020

“The question is why couldn’t this happen before? Why couldn’t this happen with the Park Board managing the park?” he asked.

“Why did it take PHS to create this change, create this atmosphere?”

READ MORE: Vancouver Buddhist Temple says 80% of items stolen in break-in found in Oppenheimer Park

The Park Board did not respond to Global News’ request for comment.

It remains unclear what the board’s long-term timeline is for clearing the camp from the park.

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In December, it approved a “decampment plan” that called for the hiring of a third-party group, a revision of park camping bylaws and a plan to find housing for residents, all within a commitment to reconciliation.

In the meantime, Couling is hopeful.

“It’s clean and it’s getting progressively so. I think by next week, it will be even cleaner. And there isn’t this tension anymore,” he said.

“Come down, look. There’s nothing to be afraid of down here, absolutely nothing.”

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