After news broke this week that the Vancouver park board’s general manager had ordered campers in Oppenheimer Park’s tent city to be removed from the area and placed into housing, the Georgia Straight asked some city councillors and park board commissioners for their thoughts on the situation.
Although they expressed some differing opinions about the evictions, they each shared the belief that more supportive housing needs to be built in order to create a long-term solution to homelessness.
Camil Dumont, a park board commissioner from the Vancouver Greens, had mixed feelings about the evictions. Although he was glad that there will be housing options for the evicted campers, he also acknowledged that simply clearing the park will not fix the city’s homelessness issue overnight.
“It’s important that we remember that the campers in Oppenheimer Park are not the problem,” he said. “They are a symptom of an unfairness and of a concentration of wealth in our beautiful city that leaves some people with lots and some people without much. It comes to this because we have, as a society…failed massively at addressing the inequity that people live with.”
Dumont attributed this lack of support for homeless individuals to a lack of policies aimed at reducing poverty during the federal Conservative party’s time in Ottawa. He now wants to see a “creative and prioritized” social housing policy from all levels of government to address the issue.
“There’s no real excuse for this. We live in a city that is very rich, and we have a really significant amount of people that don't have a safe and warm place to rest their heads at night when they go to sleep. And that is just such a massive failure on the part of our institutions and our structures.”
COPE park commissioner John Irwin raised concerns that there might not be enough housing to support everyone coming out of the park.
“I think it [the evictions] would be reasonably OK if the housing was sufficient, but what I’ve been told by people on the ground there’s about 225 tents, and the understanding of the people of the Carnegie [Community] Action [Project] is that we only have housing for 100 people,” he said.
A statement from the City of Vancouver noted that B.C. housing has reserved “more than 100” units in public, nonprofit, and single-residence occupancy (SRO) buildings for the park’s residents. Likewise, shelter spaces “are also available as an option for individuals to come inside while suitable housing is identified”.
Irwin suspects that the rest of the park’s residents could be placed in shelters, which he thinks they won’t see as “an optimal place to be for any length of time”.
Like Dumont, Irwin also wants to see an expansion in social housing to address homeless overall.
“The overarching issue of general homelessness is not going to be affected by this at all," the COPE commissioner said. "Generally, we need lots of social housing and we need it now. Or, in the interim, we need at least 600 units of temporary modular housing to be built in the city to tackle the actual issue.”
COPE councillor Jean Swanson echoed Dumont and Irwin’s demands for more public housing and called the federal government’s efforts on housing “absolutely atrocious”. In particular, she critiqued the recently announced quarter-billion-dollar housing investment between the federal government and the City of Vancouver.
“A third of that was from the city in the form of land, and more than half the rest of it was loans that have to be paid back with interest," Swanson said, "which means that people who are homeless—who have very low incomes—can't get in any places that would be funded by loans because they can't afford to pay off a mortgage in their rent."
“The amount of money that the feds have given for homelessness is a pittance, and it's really maddening because they're claiming that housing is a right and then they're not stepping up to provide the money to guarantee that right.”
She also called for increased welfare rates, the creation of a safe and clean drug supply, and an increase in temporary modular housing units in the city.
“The province only put 200 modular units in its budget this year. It had 2,000 last year. We could use 2,000 here in Vancouver, and they have a $1.5-billion dollar budget surplus.”
Green councillor Pete Fry expressed support for the park evictions.
“The situation at Oppenheimer Park was growing increasingly dense with people, of course, but it was also getting more and more unsafe,” he said. “I think there was an overall concern that it wasn’t a matter of if but when the situation was just no longer tenable and something bad happened—and then people would be asking us why we hadn’t acted sooner.”
The city’s statement listed health and safety concerns as a reason behind the evictions of the campers, noting that 17 fires have been reported in the park since February and that the Vancouver Police Department had raised concerns about incidences of violence.
Fry, who lives in the nearby Strathcona neighbourhood, said that many nearby residents have raised similar concerns to him.
“I had one mom express that her adult son got beaten up pretty badly in the park, just because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said.
“Those kinds of concerns are legitimate, and it’s important to recognize that a lot of the folks who are living in social and supportive housing out there [are] in families, and they have every right to security and access to green space.”
However, Irwin argued that evicting the park’s residents could just disperse dangerous incidents.
“The frustrating thing is when we get numbers from the police, or from emergency responders like [fire rescue services], we just get the results for that specific site,” he said. “You don't get the results kind of across the city. In my opinion, if you're looking at numbers, you need to be able to compare the numbers in that specific site with the numbers across the city because the incidents will probably still be happening.”
When asked if vacating park would make the area safer, Swanson said that providing a free and safe drug supply that could remove profit from the drug trade would be the best way to improve safety.
Nonetheless, Fry also emphasized the need for more housing investments from senior levels of government to address the city’s housing and homelessness woes.
In particular, he called for a variety of different housing options to address the issue, such as workforce housing and smaller collections of temporary modular housing units.
“So throughout the city, different housing forms, multiple bedrooms, family housing—all those kind of things that we’re falling short on,” Fry said. “And critically, it has to be housing that’s affordable to the most vulnerable in our society.”
Two NPA politicians, park commissioner John Coupar and councillor Rebecca Bligh, did not make themselves available to the Straight for comment before this article was completed.