Vancouver’s council and park board have directed staff to provide support for dozens of campers living in Oppenheimer Park, but its not clear when that will happen.
Council earlier this month approved a motion directing city and park board staff to work together to provide 24-hour washroom access, storage facilities and a temporary warming station in or near Oppenheimer Park. The Downtown Eastside park has had, by some estimates, between 80 and 100 homeless people bedding down in tents each night in recent months, including through last month’s cold and snowy weather.
The council motion was introduced by COPE Coun. Jean Swanson, who says that in her four decades of anti-poverty work in the Downtown Eastside, she has never seen as many campers living in the park in snowy conditions as this year.
“For heaven’s sake, we have all those people living there, and they have no place to pee at night,” Swanson said Monday. “That is a public health nightmare.”
The city council motion, approved March 14, followed a similar motion approved on March 11 by the Vancouver park board, directing park board and city staff to work together to provide supports in Oppenheimer Park.
Those additional supports were not yet in place as of Monday, the City of Vancouver wrote in an emailed statement Monday, and “city staff are still determining the timeline and next steps for implementing the direction from the council motion.”
The original language of Swanson’s motion, which she tried to introduce last month, directed city staff to work with B.C. Housing “to rent a hotel or motel to house the Oppenheimer Park patrons.” But other councillors amended the motion this month to replace the words “rent a hotel or motel” with “continue to explore ways to fund temporary and/or permanent accommodations, with appropriate support services.”
Over the years, groups of varying sizes have camped in Oppenheimer Park, including a tent city that grew to as many as 200 tents in the fall of 2014. But the number of campers there this winter was thought to be a record high for the time of year, said Fiona York, a coordinator with the Carnegie Community Action Project, which supported Swanson’s motion.
York said Monday she had counted 42 tents in the park over this past weekend, many of which could be shared by two or three campers.
Last week, the Coroners Service released a report showing that in 2016, the most recent year for which statistics were available, the province had 175 deaths of homeless people, a 140 per cent increase over 2015. The city of Vancouver had a 250 per cent increase in deaths of homeless people in that period.
In 2016, 53 per cent of deaths of homeless people resulted from unintentional drug and/or alcohol poisoning, an increase over previous years. B.C.’s chief health officer declared a public health emergency in April 2016 over the surging number of drug overdoses, mostly linked to fentanyl.
Since 2017, Vancouver’s modular housing program has provided homes for 606 people who had been facing homelessness, using funding from the provincial government.
Many activists, including Swanson, have said the modular housing is a welcome addition, but the need far outstrips the supply.
The most recent Metro Vancouver homeless count found 3,605 people homeless in the region, up 30 per cent from the previous count in 2014. The City of Vancouver’s own count last year found 2,181 homeless residents in the city proper.