Municipal, provincial, First Nations and community leaders gathered outside Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park on Saturday to mark the end in a long and controversial chapter of an entrenched homeless camp.
The province set a Saturday deadline for hundreds of homeless campers to vacate the park and move into temporary housing in hotels and single-room occupancy buildings arranged during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The milestone was marked with a smudging and cleansing ceremony led by local First Nations on the street outside the park, most of which has been surrounded by security fencing.
“The province on its own simply would not have the ability to do this. It was the city, it was the park board, thank you, and it was mostly the community. The community played such a huge role in this,” said Minister of Social Development Shane Simpson.
“I think it’s why it went as well as it did.”
Simpson said about 265 people who had been living in the park had been moved to temporary housing, but acknowledged it was a stopgap measure.
“This is only the first steps; there’s more work to be done to get housing, and there’s more work to be done in the community, and we’re doing that work,” he said.
The plan has not been universally embraced.
Chrissy Brett, the Oppenheimer encampment’s long-running liaison, said the province’s list of people who qualified for housing was incomplete.
Organizers have now set up a new encampment in a parking lot next to CRAB Park, on land owned by the Port of Vancouver, which Brett said had been dubbed Namegans Nation 2.0.
That name refers to a long-running homeless encampment in the Saanich area.
“This fight is not over. The government chose very clearly in this process to house the most visible, not the most vulnerable,” said Brett.
“It’s taken over 20 years of the government ignoring social and affordable housing for us to end up in this crisis, and now not only are we dealing with a housing crisis, but we’re dealing with a fentanyl crisis and a mental health crisis.”
Brett said she was particularly worried about drug users who are being moved into hotel rooms where they may overdose alone and die.
Saturday marked the end of a weeks-long process in which BC Housing staff and peer support workers assessed park residents’ needs and made arrangements for their belongings.
Crews have been installing metal security fences throughout the park, both to cordon off vacated areas and to protect the possessions of people who have left voluntarily.
Crews will now spend the weekend expanding the fencing to surround the entire park.
Vancouver firefighters will then go through the tents and other items left in the park to clear out any flamable hazards, weapons or other dangerous items.
While the province claimed a success with the decampment of Oppenheimer Park, plans to move residents of homeless camps in Victoria’s Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue have not gone as smoothly.
Officials have extended the deadline to rehouse those homeless people until May 20, because about 250 people there have nowhere to go yet.