Crews were hard at work erecting metal security fencing at Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park on Friday, as work to house the residents of an entrenched homeless camp gets underway in earnest.
The metal fencing, which has security spikes on top, is being used to close off parts of the park that have already been cleared out.
The province announced a plan to move residents of the camp and two homeless camps in Victoria into safer temporary housing, including rooms at six hotels.
The deadline for the decampment is May 9.
Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction Shane Simpson said 69 campers from Oppenheimer and 67 from the two Victoria camps have already moved.
“We’re making progress, we’re moving people out in a measured way, over the days to ensure we can assess their needs, get the moved and get them properly settled into their new accommodations,” he said.
Simpson said residents are being offered plastic bins for their belongings, which will be moved to their new accommodations or stored for them.
Advocates for the homeless have sounded the alarm in recent weeks about the vulnerability of people in the park to COVID-19, given the poor sanitation facilities and impossibility of self-isolating.
Those concerns have compounded long-running issues with violence and crime in the area, and danger associated with cooking and heating equipment in the park.
On Friday evening, another fire broke out in the park, destroying several tents. No injuries were reported, and the cause is under investigation.
“I can’t believe how bad it got, it got even worse in the last two weeks,” said Gina Holland, herself formerly homeless and one of the peer support workers with the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society (WHARS) who have been cleaning the park in recent months.
“It was a good park at one time, but people can’t enjoy themselves anymore, which is too bad.”
Holland says she’s optimistic the hotel plan can bring positive change to the area.
According to Simpson, there hasn’t been heavy pushback from the camp residents. He chalked that up to one-on-one needs assessments with the homeless and the presence of peer support workers who help the campers feel they’re being listened to and respected.
“There’s obviously some anxiousness and some uncertainty on people’s behalf,” he said.
“It’s been very calm, people have been very supportive, there’s a lot of people in the site who want to move and who are looking forward to it, and we have a lot of people who are kind of getting ready.”
But this isn’t the first time an attempt has been made to clear the park.
Last summer, campers were ordered out — and while dozens were moved to housing, the encampment didn’t take long to grow back bigger than ever.
Asked how the province will respond if campers refuse to leave, Simpson said the province is taking a wait-and-see approach.
“We’ll make assessments every day moving up and we’ll have more to say bout that as we get closer to May 9,” he said.