Vancouver’s park board chair says he can’t yet talk about details of the next steps to help the people at Oppenheimer Park for fear it could upset a delicate situation, but insists work to find homes for the people sleeping there hasn’t slowed or stalled.
The elected board said last week it was in the final stages of working with B.C. Housing and the City of Vancouver to hire a third-party organization to help with housing outreach and “peer mentorship” for homeless people in the park. The agencies are working to find more temporary and permanent shelter space for them and others in the Downtown Eastside.
The encampment at the park began in October 2018 with a few tents and grew to 200 tents in early August 2019. On Dec. 9, the park board directed staff to engage a third-party organization to assess the situation and make recommendations for a “decampment plan” to safely house the roughly 40 people living there.
Park board chair Camil Dumont said that while he can’t yet reveal details about the third party, the board is working non-stop with the city and B.C. Housing on solutions for the troubling situation at the park.
“I just feel like they’re holding (that information) back for fear of compromising the process, but I know that it’s all happening,” Dumont said.
Commissioner Stuart Mackinnon said Friday that the third party could be announced this week. It will be “working on the ground with the people, building relationships, making sure they’re hooked into the correct services, and finding appropriate housing for them as it becomes available,” he said.
Dumont said the third party will serve as a kind of liaison between the people in the park and the services available to them.
“There are human beings here who are really struggling and those folks need to be helped,” Dumont said. “That’s different than the bigger, more systemic issues that we’re working on and we need to do both.”
The effort to find the people in the park adequate and affordable housing has been made more difficult by the housing crisis in the region and homelessness crisis across the country, Dumont said.
The park board also authorized its general manager, Malcolm Bromley, to seek a court injunction to clear the park, after certain conditions were met, including the engagement of that third party.
In September, the board had rejected Bromley’s earlier recommendation to clear the park with an injunction.
In previous years, the park board has authorized the use of court injunctions to clear encampments in Oppenheimer, including most recently in 2014.
The board is now working to update a bylaw so that the people sleeping in the park aren’t considered breaking the law. The amended bylaw would be in line with other municipalities which allow overnight sheltering in parks when no other shelter is available, the board said in a news release.
Dumont said he wants all of this work done “yesterday,” but it has been slowed by bureaucracy.
“There’s protocol, there’s expenses and it all has to fit together,” he said.
“When there’s a bunch of folks trying to collaborate on a situation that, honestly, is really uncomfortable for everyone. There’s no easy path to a solution. It demands creativity from bureaucracies and, honestly, that’s not what bureaucracies are known for.”
Dumont said accusations that the park board is dragging its feet being made in politics and media are unfair.
Dumont said he’s spent time at the park over the past few months, learning about the people living there and what they need to fare better.
“What they really want is housing,” he said. “They want to be able to afford to have a roof over their head and a warm bed and a clean washroom, and they want to be in a context where they are connected to their community and they’re not ‘othered’ by the system at hand.
“That’s an entirely reasonable ask and it’s entirely outside of what we’ve been able to accomplish as a culture in regard to people experiencing homelessness.”
— With files from Dan Fumano
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