On Tuesday (September 23), the City of Vancouver announced it was opening 70 new shelter spaces for homeless people who are camping in Oppenheimer Park.
And on Thursday, the city broke the news that it will be dismantling the camp in Oppenheimer, which consists of more than 100 tents that have stood in the Downtown Eastside park since mid July.
According to a media release, the city has filed court papers seeking an injunction that will provide for campers to be removed from that property.
“In addition to worsening weather condition, health and safety conditions at the camp have deteriorated such that it has become necessary for the City to take action in order to ensure the safety and well-being of those within the park and to return the park to its intended use for residents and local organizations,” the release states.
An affidavit filed in support of the city's application to the Supreme Court of B.C. includes a list of safety and hygiene concerns. There have been fights and incidents where some campers have threatened others. Those documents also describe unsanitary conditions found in some people's tents.
Camp organizers maintain that their presence in the park is a demonstration of the need for more affordable housing in Vancouver.
Brody Williams is a former spokesperson for the protest. (He was voted out of that position in an internal split that came to a head earlier this week.)
"It's pretty sad that it's come to this," he told the Straight via phone. "I'm very worried about where people are going to go. I'm very concerned and I'm wishing that we could do more."
Williams said it's his understanding that campers have been told to vacate Oppenheimer by the end of Monday, September 29.
He added that he has given a copy of the city's application for an injunction to Pivot Legal Society and is waiting to hear back.
Since the demonstration began, the Straight has made regular visits to the park and was last there the morning of September 24.
It was “welfare Wednesday”, when some campers are scheduled to receive a monthly cheque from the government. That meant many welfare recipients were suffering through the end of a week when their pockets were empty.
There was also a heavy rain that had turned the camp’s kitchen and meeting area into a muddy mess.
People were grumpy and quick to voice their dissatisfaction with the city’s announcements of more shelter and housing spaces being made available.
“The community is rejecting this,” said Stella August, a First Nations elder who helps run the camp. “They need affordable homes. They are tired of being shuffled around and tired of broken promises. That’s what I hear from the community. They don’t want mats on the ground.”
Mark Campbell is one of the few Oppenheimer campers who accepted the city’s offer of a spot at the new shelter at 900 Pacific Street. But even he was critical of city’s efforts to find housing for the campers in Oppenheimer.
“I took it because I was sick,” he told the Straight. “It’s great that there’s somewhere for me to go that’s dry. But it’s not a place that you can call home. It’s not even a temporary fix.”
Campbell said he struggles with the shelter’s hours, which restrict clients from staying there between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m.
“Me with my a-fib [atrial fibrillation], I get tired during the day,” he explained.
Campbell noted that city staff are working to help him find a place of his own. But he added that he worries there are too many homeless people sleeping in the park for everybody to find a place they can afford.
At a café across the street from Oppenheimer, a homeless man named Ian Collette was similarly unimpressed with the city’s announcements.
“It’s putting a Band-Aid on where you need major surgery,” Collette said. “The shelter, that’s your Band-Aid. Where’s the surgery?”
He noted that there are a lot of couples sleeping in Oppenheimer right now, and shelters are generally male-only or female-only. Crime is also a problem, Collette continued, as are restrictive opening hours and a lack of privacy.
“If you’re in a facility such as a shelter, you can’t have that freedom,” he said.
At the same time, Collette acknowledged the challenge the city and province face in trying to find housing for so many low-income people.
“I came out here to help and I’m trying to find an answer,” he said. “How can this be resolved? People say that the city is not moving on this. And everybody is aware of that. But I don’t have the answers.”
According to the region’s last homeless count, the number of people sleeping unsheltered on the streets of Vancouver has more than tripled over the past three years, from 154 in 2011 to 536 in 2014.
The city’s September 25 release states that government has already placed 40 people previously camping in Oppenheimer into existing housing options. Another 50 are on a wait list. That leaves “upwards of 50 more” Oppenheimer campers who are homeless, according to the city’s count.