Homeless in Vancouver: City resorts to its old anti-homeless tactic of closing Oppenheimer Park washrooms
Tuesday (November 5) evening, the City of Vancouver suddenly blocked overnight access to the only washrooms in Oppenheimer Park.
The otherwise homeless people living in the Downtown Eastside park have been forced to occupy the washrooms in an attempt to keep them open.
A November 6 email news release from the Carnegie Community Action Project outlined the previous day’s sudden closure of the washrooms and indicated that city-employed security was again trying to close the washrooms, as of 2:13 p.m.
“The washrooms were closed at 5 pm on November 5, apparently by order of city staff, and opened about 1:30 pm. Security have now arrived to close them again. Activists are occupying the washrooms so that they remain open.”
“We’re sick and tired of these games that city hall is playing,” the news release quotes tent city liaison Chrissy Brett as saying.
“These games are impacting the lives of 150 people and adding additional stresses and pressures on already vulnerable people,” a clearly exasperated Brett adds.
The park board has since blamed the washroom closures on a sewage backup but as homeless activists know, this is a familiar tactic that has been used against previous homeless encampments at Oppenheimer Park.
History of harassing homeless camps repeats itself
Closing washrooms and blocking access to safe sanitation options is just another page from the City of Vancouver’s established playbook for pressuring so-called illegal tent cities on city property—as shown by a five-year-old news story titled: “Oppenheimer Park campers plan to occupy public washrooms to prevent nightly lock-up“.
That story, from July 2014, explains how homeless camp occupants in Oppenheimer Park that summer were likewise driven to occupy the park washrooms, in an effort to stop the park board from locking them at 4:30 p.m. each day.
The 2014 story ends with mention of how campers and homeless advocates attended a city council meeting to plead (unsuccessfully) against eviction from the park, which they explained was far better than the alternative SRO hotel rooms—so often infested with mice and bedbugs.
Five years later, little has changed. Homeless campers in Oppenheimer Park are being treated to the same shitty pressure tactics and largely being offered the same shitty SRO housing.
A band-aid housing solution with a touch of duct tape
In the third week of August, a small army of city and provincial workers—together with moving company contractors—swooped into Oppenheimer Park.
At the time it was reported throughout the Vancouver media that B.C. Housing had rustled up 140 units of housing for campers in the park.
On October 30, tent city liaison Chrissy Brett (then briefly relocated to a kind of “Oppenheimer West” camp on the grounds of City Hall), explained to me that—as she understood—the actual composition of housing offered in August was 98 SRO units and 40 shelter beds.
To stockpile those units B.C. Housing resorted to a so-called unit freeze.
This essentially involved blocking other homeless people from receiving units in a certain number of social housing complexes for a certain number of months. Apparently a process of tenant attrition was then allowed to produce empty units.
By depriving housing to an unknown group of people outside the public spotlight, B.C. Housing was able to offer a unit to perhaps half of the estimated 200 Oppenheimer Park campers who were in the spotlight. Plus, shelter beds were offered to nearly a quarter of the remainder.
According to Brett, B.C. Housing’s unit freeze began in January, eight month prior to the housing being offered in August.
Moving homeless people around is down to a science
Sources who helped pack up and move Oppenheimer Park campers in August explained to me how a well-developed system, involving different colours of duct tape, was used to direct moving boxes to certain of 27 social housing complexes on a colour-coded list.
I was provided with a copy of this list and have edited it for both spelling and to include the operators:
- Red: Alexander Street Community, Chartrand Place, M. Mitchell Place, Nora Hendrix Place, Hummingbird Place, and Woodwards Community Housing—all operated by PHS.
- Purple: The Biltmore (Rain City), First Place (Lookout Society), and Larwill Place TMH (MPA Society).
- Pink: Hotel Maple (PHS), Molson Bank Building (PHS), Hotel Irving (PHS), Beacon Hotel (PHS), Jubilee Rooms on Main (Rain City), London Hotel (Atira), Savoy Hotel (Provincial Rental Housing Corporation), and all City of Vancouver site (“including the Avalon Hotel and Metropole”).
- Blue: Flint, Carl Rooms, and Hazelwood.
- Green: Gastown, Winters, Hotel Canada, St. Helens, Arco, and Hutchinson.
As Brett indicated, the list of housing offered to the Oppenheimer Park camps is heavy on SROs but also includes newer social housing, including temporary modular complexes.
After moving all of the people into housing who could be, there were still probably over a hundred left trying to make a home for themselves in Oppenheimer Park.
In a notable aside, I was told that moving company staffers recognized a number of Oppenheimer Park campers whom they had previously helped move out of the Balmoral and Regent. This came after those two dangerously run-down SRO hotels (and their combined 293 units of lowest-income housing) were closed by order of the city in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
Wednesday (November 7), Vancouver city council finally voted to expropriate the two derelict Downtown Eastside buildings for a dollar each.
Mayor needs to match his words with deeds—housing deeds
When Mayor Kennedy Stewart blithely told the media on September 4 that some of the “folks” living in Openheimer Park “may need a little nudge to move ahead”, the media lowballed the number of people left living in the park as only 40.
But the day before, I had counted over 80 tents and five days later, on September 9, Brett told me that the tent count in the park was something like 97.
When Brett told me this, she and a few others were in the middle of a two day campout on the grounds of Vancouver City Hall, as a way to tell the mayor that the “folks” in Oppenheimer Park had felt his “nudge”, if not his compassion or understanding.
Housing choices are as poor as the folks living in the park
Beyond his bluster and indignation, the mayor had (and has) little to offer those still camping in Oppenheimer Park, beyond overnight shelter beds, as the Vancouver Courier indicated in September.
It is beyond my understanding how Stewart can imagine that overnight shelter beds—with all the uncertainty that goes with them—offer any kind of improvement over living in a tent community.
It is important, I think, to point out one of the main reasons why the Oppenheimer Park camp exists in the first place.
Over the last 50-plus years, governance of the city and province has allowed—and, in fact encouraged—the downtown stock of below-market rental housing to be gradually decimated—from literally tens of thousands of units in the 1970s, to probably less than 2,000 today.
As if erasing the unsightly poverty housing could erase the unsightly poor.
Now that the majority of Vancouver’s old downtown “welfare housing” has been gentrified, or otherwise eliminated, no one should be surprised to see homeless people taking matters into their own hands and attempting to safely house themselves in a Downtown Eastside park.
Almost the only thing that the city has to offer these homeless Vancouver residents is this park, where they have pitched tents for the mutual safety that community can offer.
Yanking even that out from under them—as Mayor Stewart is obviously bound and determined to do—strikes me as an especially callous and dispiriting example of kicking people while they are down and out.
Stewart is guilty of criminalizing homeless people
As a homeless person, I try to remember that underneath all the individual kindnesses, Vancouver is a sort of business that—if management isn’t careful—tends to be the least interested in serving those who have the least ability to pay.
Strictly speaking, being homeless means not having the ability to pay—first and foremost—for a property that you have a legal right to occupy.
Almost any attempt by a homeless person to occupy space that they do not pay for can be treated as a criminal act.
This is what Stewart is doing. He has chosen to treat homeless people as criminals because—for reasons of both poverty and insecurity—they cannot afford to live anywhere in Vancouver besides a public park.
For several months now the mayor of Vancouver and his police department have been working hard to portray the homeless people in Oppenheimer Park as little more than a criminal gang that is guilty—at least in the court of public opinion—of the heinous crime of gross occupancy.
A case in point was the September 19 news release issued by the Vancouver Police Department (VPD), wherein the department renewed its “concern about safety in Oppenheimer Park and the Downtown Eastside”.
The release included a paragraph designed to be picked up (as it was) by the city’s major new media outlets:
“So far, this year, police have seized 453 firearms in four different districts of the city. Forty-nine per cent (223) of those have been in ‘district two’ alone, which includes Oppenheimer Park and the Downtown Eastside.”
Nothing in the release says that even a single firearm was seized in the park. It is a classic smear tactic relying on guilt by association.
The VPD’s September 19 claim that a total of 453 firearms had been seized in Vancouver up until August appeared to sharply contradict a statement made less than a month earlier.
On August 23, police spokesman Const. Steve Addison was quoted by the Vancouver Sun to the effect that the VPD had seized something like over 150 firearms up to August 2019.
When pressed repeatedly, the VPD was at a loss to explain the incredible discrepancy between the two statistics, saying that Const. Addison was away from the office and could not be reached.
The officer has apparently still not been located and I have been tempted to file a missing persons report with his department.
Focus should be on protecting people not property
Now that push is literally coming to shove, we can see that there is nothing remotely progressive about Mayor Stewart’s attitude toward the homeless people in the park.
In choosing to treat their poverty-driven civil disobedience simply as an unlawful disturbance that needs to quelled, Stewart is every bit as reactionary as any previous mayor of Vancouver.
For their part, the homeless people occupying Oppenheimer Park may as well be Gerry McGeer’s unruly Depression-era labour camp strikers, or Tom Campbell’s loitering hippies during the Summer of Love.
Like his mayoral predecessors, Kennedy Stewart seems to be itching to read his unruly homeless lawbreakers the Riot Act.
Poor people trying to stand up for themselves can have that effect on mayors of Vancouver.