Everyone knew it was coming. The city of Vancouver has officially ordered campers in Oppenheimer Park to vacate the area.
“You are considered to be in breach of the Parks Control By-law,” reads a notice that was distributed to people sleeping in the Downtown Eastside park this morning (August 19). “You are ordered to remove your tents and structures by Wednesday, August 21, 2019 at 6:00 PM.”
A second page states that members of the city’s homeless-outreach team and B.C. Housing staff will be present in the park to “support you with moving into safe, secure and stable accommodation”.
The number of homeless people sleeping in tents in Oppenheimer Park grew steadily through the spring and summer of 2019. It’s estimated they now number more than 200.
Last month, the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) shared an alarming assessment of the situation, claiming that the area is so dangerous that the force will no longer dispatch officers there unless they can travel in groups.
Outreach workers with the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) responded with skepticism. They maintain the campers are not the real problem.
“We understand that safety can be used as an excuse to displace already vulnerable people,” said CCAP coordinator Fiona York quoted in a media release. “How many 311 calls have been made in the same space of time, complaining about the police and city workers’ treatment of people staying at the park? If we really want to talk about safety, we need to provide secure, permanent housing.”
A media release that the city issued in conjunction with today’s eviction notices repeatedly claims that the provincial government will move as many of the campers as possible into “more than 100 units of safe and stable accommodation for people experiencing homelessness”.
“Carnegie Outreach continues to be on site daily, working to support individuals to access housing and shelter, income and other support services,” it continues. “To help people with the transition, BC Housing has a team in the park to support people packing and transporting their belongings, once an offer is accepted. Park Board staff are offering longer-term storage options for any possessions that individuals are not able to move to their new space right away.”
The city’s issuing of eviction notices follows a pattern that’s played out in Oppenheimer Park before.
It begins with the number of tents pitched there growing slowly over several months or maybe the course of a year. Next, authorities (usually the VPD and/or the Vancouver Fire Department) raise concerns and make a public case arguing that the campers are becoming a concern for safety and sanitation. The city then takes those arguments to the park board’s general manager or to a judge. They issue an order or an injunction, which advocates for the homeless usually counter with a legal challenge. The city always wins, however. Soon enough, VPD officers are dispatched to the park and, without any heavy-handed use of force that might make for a scene on the evening news, police and city workers clear the park. Finally, the VPD will patrol the area more frequently, ensuring the park remains free of tents, at least for few a few weeks.
Of course, through it all, Vancouver’s homeless problem remains as severe as ever. Soon enough, a few campers will return to Oppenheimer or pitch tents in a nearby empty lot in the Downtown Eastside. And in a year or maybe three, they’ll grow in number and the entire process will repeat.
Last June, the city of Vancouver revealed that in 2019, the number of homeless people had increased for the fourth year in a row.
There were 2,223 homeless residents counted this year, compared to 2,181 in 2018, 2,138 the year before that, and 1,847 in 2017.
According to a staff presentation, 44 percent of Vancouver’s homeless population struggles with a mental illness and 38 percent live with a physical disability. A significantly disproportionate number are Indigenous.