People living near East Vancouver’s Strathcona Park are demanding all levels of government take creative and immediate action to address a growing homeless encampment they say is threatening the safety of their neighbourhood.
With an estimated 300 tents sprawled across the green space, residents say not only is their largest park now off-limits but verbal attacks and violent encounters are on the rise as those who frequent the homeless camp move through the surrounding streets.
“I just continue to see it escalate,” said Katie Lewis with the Strathcona Residents’ Association.
“We’re very concerned and we need something to happen now.”
Last month, a man threatened to stab Vancouver Coun. Pete Fry during a confrontation captured on video. Fry had intervened when the man allegedly became aggressive with his neighbour after she witnessed the man preparing to inject drugs on a doorstep and asked him to leave.
More recently, neighbours reported a number of scary incidents involving children – including two kids being verbally threatened and another picked up and shaken in the water park by a stranger who appeared to be experiencing psychosis.
“Dog walkers have been threatened with knives,” said Lewis.
“A man threatened to pull a nine millimetre on a local resident who asked him to move along because he was shouting at children.”
Homeless activists established the Strathcona camp in mid-June after the CRAB Park encampment was shut down.
While police calls to the neighbourhood are down over last year, the Vancouver Police Department is ramping up patrols around Strathcona Park where calls are up 140 per cent this June and July over the same time in 2019.
Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services has also seen calls to the park increase from 11 in 2019 to 29 so far this year – including 16 calls since May. Firefighters say 55 per cent are fire-related while 45 per cent are for medical incidents.
“There’s disorder, there’s no doubt about it,” said Social Development and Poverty Reduction Minister Shane Simpson.
Simpson said he understands some of the frustration and anxiety as people use the neighbourhood as a thoroughfare to move between Strathcona Park and the Hastings corridor but assures residents the province is talking with the City of Vancouver about how to provide additional support.
They’re are also working to understand how many campers are actually homeless versus those who are visiting the encampment during the day for the “sense of community”.
“Also who are the predators, who are the people who are a challenge and a risk to both the campers and to the people in Strathcona,” Simpson told Global News.
The first of two B.C. navigation centres is expected to open at a yet to be identified location in Vancouver by spring 2021. The 60-bed low barrier facility will provide 24/7 wraparound supports to people experiencing homelessness.
The provincial government says the complex issues involved in finding permanent homes for everyone won’t be solved overnight, and their federal counterparts have to step up with financial support.
“There is no magic bullet for this,” said Simpson.
“It’s not going to be one entity that’s going to fix this.”
Three months after Oppenheimer’s long-entrenched tent city was cleared as the province took control of the Downtown Eastside (DTES) park in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, most of the 261 people who left the camp are still housed.
As of August, approximately 80 per cent of former Oppenheimer campers remain in temporary supportive or more permanent housing – including hotels secured for the planned decampment like the Granville hostel, Luugat(formerly the Howard Johnson), Holiday Inn and the Lark on East Hastings.
Most of the campers who lost their homes had their beds released after they left for a few days and did not return although a number were evicted for breaking the temporary accommodation rules. The Social Development and Poverty Reduction ministry told Global News these individuals are offered beds at different shelters but don’t always accept the spaces.
Meantime, Strathcona residents still have no access to Oppenheimer Park, which remains closed as remediation work continues.
When asked when it would reopen to the public, the Vancouver Park Board issued a statement saying: “A reopen date is still in the works; staff are in the process of engaging with partners, stakeholders and the public to plan for a smooth transition.”
“There’s a war going on between the government and homeless activists,” said Lewis.
“And the Strathcona community, unfortunately, is the collateral damage in this.”
Hundreds of tents have popped up at Strathcona Park since the province purchased three Vancouver hotels – including the 110 room Howard Johnson on Granville – to help house Oppenheimer’s homeless. But Simpson said the government won’t be buying its way out of an issue that’s been building in B.C. for decades.
“It’s not going be a quick fix to address homelessness.”