The residents of the controversial Oppenheimer Park homeless camp in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside say they appreciate the province’s plan to move them into temporary housing, but argue those living on the streets need more urgent attention.
BC Housing and the provincial government detailed their plan Saturday to move hundreds of residents of Oppenheimer Park and two encampments in Victoria to vacant hotel rooms to help limit the spread of COVID-19, while also addressing the ongoing overdose crisis that has impacted those communities.
Yet Oppenheimer Park advocates including camp liaison Chrissy Brett said shortly after the government’s announcement that the plan is only focused on the most visible of Vancouver’s homeless, and that thousands more need those hotel units first.
“We want to ensure that it’s the people with the largest health risks, the oldest, the youngest, and the people who need immediate support now,” she said at a press conference at the park.
The province says it has secured over 600 hotel rooms at eight hotels and two community centres in Vancouver alone. Officials say they expect the majority of the roughly 300 people living in Oppenheimer Park to move to those centres voluntarily, based on what outreach workers have reportedly heard from the campers.
But Brett said while she and other community leaders will support anyone who takes the province’s offer, she expects others will prefer to stay in the camp, despite a provincial order to have the camp cleared by May 9.
Those people may join the roughly 3,000 people who identified themselves as homeless in the city’s latest homeless count on the street, Brett said — stoking fears that those people won’t be included in the housing plan.
“The province has once again come up with a way to just try to erase the eyesore and the constant reminder that people have to drive by each and every day,” she said.
Brett pointed to the death of a newborn baby whose mother gave birth in a port-a-potty in the Downtown Eastside earlier this week, along with the death of a man in a separate port-a-potty from a suspected overdose the week before, as proof that people are still falling through the cracks.
The province says it is continuing to secure additional hotel and shelter spaces in Vancouver and across the rest of B.C. to hopefully provide housing to as many homeless people who need it.
Hotels already secured will have supports for mental health and people suffering from substance use, and that medications will be provided to those who need them.
The goal is to eventually move people from those hotels, which may only be leased up to six months, into more permanent modular or supportive housing.
Yet Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart has said the city doesn’t have the money to build additional housing needed to fully address the homeless crisis, as municipal coffers have been stretched to their breaking point due to the pandemic.
Homeless advocates have called for the securing of hotels to house vulnerable people for weeks, with some even occupying a Vancouver school to send the message to Stewart and city officials.
Brett said the police response to that occupation, which saw 14 people arrested, has raised concerns that the order clearing the homeless camps won’t be enforced with proper sensitivity.
The order was issued by Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth through the Emergency Program Act, rather than by a public health order, which Brett said adds to her concerns.
“This is the government, yet again, trying to fit people into boxes they don’t fit in,” she said.
—With files from Robyn Crawford