Homeless in Vancouver: Will death at Kelowna homeless camp help shorten life of Vancouver’s Oppenheimer camp?

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      The tragic news that a person died overnight Monday (December 16) at a Kelowna homeless camp may increase pressure here in Vancouver to break up a controversial homeless camp in Oppenheimer Park, itself linked to a nearby shooting that reportedly sent one person to hospital December 13.

      At 2:55 a.m. Monday, according to CBC News, Kelowna paramedics answered a call regarding an unconscious person in a park off the city’s Recreation Avenue (551 Recreation Avenue)—one of two city parks where the city has been allowing homeless people to camp overnight since the last week of November.

      A patient in critical condition was transported to hospital, where the person subsequently died, according to a Kelowna city official quoted by CBC News.

      At Monday noon, KelownaNow described the deceased as a young man, while a later CBC News report identified him as 39-year-old Shane Bourdin.

      As of Tuesday morning, authorities had still not made public the cause of death

      The Sunday evening–Monday morning low temperature in Kelowna was around -10° C.

      Kelowna set up the Recreation Avenue park homeless campsite—along with another homeless campsite in part of the Knox Mountain Park at 565 Poplar Point Road—at the end of November. This was in order to relocate homeless people from a burgeoning downtown homeless camp.

      The two park campsites—located between 1.5 kilometres and 3.7 kilometres north of the original downtown homeless camp on Leon Avenue—have been equipped with washrooms garbage disposal, sharps disposal, access to bottled water and daytime storage.

      A shortage of emergency shelter spaces in Kelowna is expected to ease toward the end of  December, with the addition of 20-40 beds.

      Frustration and exaggeration of Oppenheimer Park

      Nothing in the Downtown Eastside is very far away from Oppenheimer Park.
      Google Maps

      Meanwhile, in Vancouver, where there is no greater surplus of empty shelter beds than in Kelowna—but at least the overnight low temperature is running at a comparatively balmy 5° to 7° C—patience with the long-running homeless camp in Oppenheimer Park has reached a low ebb, thanks to a steady stream of negative coverage.

      The widely reported December 13 shooting incident in the area was only the latest negative press laid at the doorstep of the Oppenheimer Park homeless camp.

      Though such a thing has not, I believe, happened yet, one Vancouver official was quick to use the shooting incident to declare that it was only a matter of time before someone did die inside the park.

      Pivot Legal Society, which works to support the rights of the disenfranchised, was quick to urge Vancouver city officials not to use the December 13 shooting incident as an excuse to try and shut down the long-running homeless camp in the park.

      So far, no one has suggested that this shooting actually took place inside of Oppenheimer Park—or that anyone camping in the park was involved—only that it took place in the “Oppenheimer Park area”.

      But in a letter sent Friday (December 14) to the mayor, council, and park commissioners, Pivot highlighted how the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) reacted to the previous night’s shooting in a manner guaranteed to hurt the homeless people living in Oppenheimer Park.

      “VPD officers slashed open many residents’ tents last night in the course of their operations,” Pivot lawyer Anna Cooper wrote, according to the Vancouver Sun:

      “Setting aside for the moment whether those actions were a reasonable exercise of police authority, the result is that many people’s homes and shelters are now exposed to wind, rain, and a lack of privacy. This is both a health and safety issue.”

      Many observers, including myself, have viewed the VPD’s actions and public pronouncements regarding the Oppenheimer Park homeless camp, going back for months, as a less-than-honest campaign of harassment and vilification, intended to build the public perception that the homeless camp is a hotbed of crime and violence that must be stamped out.

      However, for several months, the semi-independent Vancouver park board has refused to bow to pressure from both the mayor and council to kick out the homeless campers from Oppenheimer Park, citing a total lack of anywhere better to house them.

      “Simply removing people from Oppenheimer Park, which may force them onto the streets, back lanes, and into other parks is not the solution,” park board chair Stuart Mackinnon explained at a September 6 news conference.

      On October 24 Vancouver city council responded to this municipal stalemate by passing a motion calling for “a collaborative and new approach to Oppenheimer Park and other public spaces”.

      This motion also called on Mayor Kennedy Stewart to write a letter to encourage the semi-autonomous park board to “take all reasonable steps within its jurisdictional powers and work collaboratively with the City to facilitate the decampment of those currently living in the park".

      As if in answer, on December 10, park commissioners announced their willingness, finally, to seek a court injunction to clear homeless campers from the park—but only following a seemingly contradictory third-party assessment of the Oppenheimer Park homeless camp.

      This assessment, reportedly, would identify both how the camp could be made safer and more supportive for the people choosing to live at Oppenheimer Park, as well as how to help these same people find appropriate, alternative shelter as part of the so-called “decampment” of the park, which both the park board and city council now apparently agree on.

      However, no one with the city should need a third-party assessment to tell them what’s available in the way of alternative shelter, or housing.

      It’s well-known that shelter beds are in short supply and the only “housing” on the horizon is a 58-unit modular housing complex (TMH), due to be completed deep in East Vancouver, sometime in February or March 2020.

      But ahead of people living in Oppenheimer Park, there are others who have been on social housing waiting lists for years and who are scheduled to move in to at least some of those TMH units. I know one of them.

      But certain city councillors may be too impatient to even want to wait for spring—apparently preferring that the city’s street people live in the city’s streets, not in its parks.

      Despite Pivot’s plea for city officials to desist from using the December 13 shooting incident to smear the Oppenheimer Park homeless camp, one city counsellor, namely Melissa De Genova, could not resist:

      “With the shooting and with another shooting recently related to Oppenheimer Park, I’m concerned that it’s only a matter of time before we unfortunately do see a death,”

      “I don’t want to fear monger…” the councillor added, after doing just that.

      Who will be surprised if De Genova is unscrupulous enough to also cite the unfortunate death in far away Kelowna as another reason to depopulate the Vancouver Downtown Eastside park of homeless people?

      I say unscrupulous because all the efforts of Mayor Stewart, the VPD and coucillors like De Genova to paint the Oppenheimer Park homeless camp as the deadliest place in the Downtown Eastside are not just exaggerations but, in a very real way, they appear to turn reality on its head.

      Happy birthday to safest place in the DTES?

      On Friday (December 14), Pivot, the Carnegie Community Action Project, and members of the Downtown Eastside community joined the homeless campers in Oppenheimer Park to throw an early Christmas party, street-rights workshop, and a belated celebration of the homeless camp’s first anniversary.

      That’s right, in October 2019, the Oppenheimer Park homeless camp marked its first year.

      Currently in its 14th month, this latest iteration of a tent city in Oppenheimer Park is probably the longest-running homeless camp in Vancouver history.

      So far as I know, the previous record holder was the 11-month-long All Seasons Park homeless camp, which saw hippies successfully block a massive development on the Stanley Park Causeway by living, from May 1971 to April 1972, on the land intended to be covered with a “forest” of 30-storey towers.

      Now please correct me if I am wrong but I am not aware of a single death in this latest Oppenheimer Park homeless camp—in all of its 14-month history.

      There have been fights and injuries and arrests, to be sure. And I am aware that some tents and stuff are said (by the city, at least) to have caught fire earlier this month. But I cannot find a report of any death in the Oppenheimer Park homeless camp, since it began in October of 2018.

      Over the same 16-month period in the surrounding Downtown Eastside, there have certainly been a number of accidental deaths and at least three homicides. But none, I believe, inside the homeless camp in Oppenheimer Park.

      Think about that.

      Contrary to what De Genova and others would have you believe, hasn’t the homeless camp at Oppenheimer Park actually proven to be one of the safest places in the otherwise often risky Downtown Eastside?