An August 21 deadline for homeless campers to vacate Oppenheimer Park has come and gone but many tents remain on the field in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
“We expect people sleeping in the park to comply with the order and work with us on accepting the remaining housing and shelter options that are still available,” reads a notice that the city distributed to campers yesterday (August 22). “The Carnegie Outreach Team is in the park to support people who have been sleeping in Oppenheimer Park and help you move into housing or shelter. Please connect with them if you need assistance.”
The printout states that Vancouver Police Department (VPD) officers will be on hand in the park to “keep the peace, ensure public safety, and respond to incidents as needed,” but adds that for now, police “will not remove people living in the park without further legal authorization and notice”.
According to an August 22 media release, 93 people who were previously camping in Oppenheimer Park have accepted government assistance and transitioned into “safe and stable accommodation”. This accounts for more than two-thirds of campers who were counted sleeping in the park when eviction notice were delivered earlier this week, according to the city.
The release goes on to warn that if homeless campers remaining in Oppenheimer Park do not accept the government’s offer of assistance or otherwise vacate the area, the city and park board may take “further legal action”.
“The City continues to work with VPD to ensure the safety of all campers in the park, as well as residents in the surrounding neighbourhood,” it adds.
The number of homeless people sleeping in tents in Oppenheimer Park grew steadily through the spring and summer of 2019.
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.”
On August 21, Green party parks commissioner Camil Dumont told the Straight that authorities understand that moving the Oppenheimer campers into housing and shelters will not solve Vancouver’s larger problem of homelessness.
“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.”
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.
Interviewed by the Straight earlier this week, COPE park commissioner John Irwin similarly said that housing remains an issue in Vancouver. He acknowledged there likely will not be enough low-income units available for everyone who has been sleeping in Oppenheimer Park.
“I think it [the evictions] would be reasonably okay 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.