One year after a homeless encampment at Oppenheimer Park was shut down as part of the province’s COVID-19 response, Global News has learned the city of Vancouver is on the hook for more than $3.5 million in services and costs associated with the Downtown Eastside green space’s more than 18 months as a tent city.
Records obtained from the city show that between October 2018 and June 2020, $995,436 was spent on regular Arts, Culture and Community Services (ACCS) including field house operations, while every day Park Board costs totaled $418,314.
The Vancouver Police Department billed $270,232 for on-duty work during the same time period, and $510,715 in callout/incremental costs including overtime.
Policing costs, released to Global News in response to a Freedom of Information request, total $780,947 and include overtime for the August 2019 injunction, weekday callouts, assisting parks staff on weekends, and the effort to rehouse campers.
The data does not include regular police calls for service to Oppenheimer Park as the VPD said it is not possible to assign a cost and time to each call for service.
The city’s engineering department, ACCS and park board spent a combined $113,247 on decampment efforts in 2019 and 2020.
By the end of September 2020, the City of Vancouver estimated it had spent $450,000 on restoration at Oppenheimer Park.
More than seven months later, the board said the restoration cost is still estimated to be around $450,000.
The city said the cost to restore the fieldhouse, which is separate from the park restoration, has jumped from an estimated $420,000 for repairs to $750,000 for a full rebuild using hardier materials “which will help mitigate future issues such as rot caused by flooding, and result in less downtime when repairs such as graffiti removal are needed.”
Add up all of the above and Vancouver taxpayers are facing a $3,507,944 bill for the tent city — and that total doesn’t include Vancouver Fire and Rescue Service costs, or all of the homelessness outreach.
“Unfortunately, they’re throwing money at the problem and we don’t have the results that we need to show for it,” Kris Sims of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation said.
Sims said she doesn’t believe Vancouver citizens and taxpayers are being well served when their leaders pump $3.5 million into one city park “for people to live in tents in utter misery for 19 months.”
“We can see that this is not good value,” Sims told Global News.
Global News asked the mayor if he considered this to be taxpayers’ money well spent, and how much taxpayers can expect to pay for similar services at the Strathcona Park tent city, where decampment is almost complete.
Kennedy Stewart was not available for an interview and instead sent a statement which passed the buck to the provincial and federal governments.
“Homelessness is expensive, it doesn’t matter if it’s an encampment in a park, or someone sleeping in an alley,” Stewart said.
“That’s why cities across B.C. and Canada have been calling on senior governments for more investments to support homeless and under-housed neighbours. Without it, cities are left paying for emergency services like these.”
Stewart stated that he’d “much rather have spent this money on housing” but that the city now has willing partners in Victoria and Ottawa who understand that “it’s a better use of money to make sure people have warm, safe housing, instead of ignoring this problem like so many previous governments have.”
Ken Sim, who ran as the mayoral candidate for the Non-Partisan Association (NPA) in 2018 and lost to Stewart by less than 1,000 votes, said the Oppenheimer encampment costs are a failure of accountability, transparency and effectiveness.
“Our city expects better, and it deserves better,” Sim told Global News.
Sim, who is now a 2022 city of Vancouver mayoral candidate, said action on Oppenheimer and Strathcona parks was delayed by a jurisdictional fight, which slowed down the process of getting people help and housing.
That’s why Sim said he’s committed to abolishing the elected park board and rolling it back under the authority of city council if he wins next fall’s mayoral election. Abolishing the park board, which is enshrined in the Vancouver Charter, would require action by the provincial government.
Vancouver Coun. Pete Fry said he’s also frustrated over the Oppenheimer Park expenditures.
“That money could have been spent on a lot of other things,” Fry told Global News.
The Green Party councillor said the ongoing costs are an expensive lesson that parks are not able to handle this kind of stress.
A costly fix is also expected at Strathcona Park, where a 10-month encampment is coming to an end. Due to a phased decampment, the west side of the park is open.
“I think the east side’s going to take a little bit more investment,” said Fry.
“There’s rat holes throughout the entire field so I imagine there is going to have to be some significant remediation.”
The City of Vancouver said Oppenheimer Park’s 2020 decampment costs of $94,328 were recovered from the province.
Breakdown of Oppenheimer Park encampment costs (Oct. 2018 – June 2020):
Arts, Culture and Community Services(regular work including Field House operations)
- 2018 – $417,991
- 2019 – $410,687
- 2020 – $166,758
ACCS Total: $995,436
*May not include cost of homelessness outreach
Parks (regular work)
- 2019- $279,500
- 2020- $138,814
- ACCS (2019) – $18,919
- ACCS (2020) – $16,261
- Parks (2020) – $69,168
- Engineering (2020) – $8,899
*2020 decampment costs of $94,328 recovered from province
- On Duty- $270,232
- Callout incremental- $510,715
*Not including regular police calls for service
- General: $450,000
- Fieldhouse rebuild: $750,000
Total costs: $3,507,944
*Not including Vancouver Fire & Rescue Service costs