Standing out in the rain on a path between tents in Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park, Shane Redpath said he has no idea where he’ll go if he’s forced out of the homeless camp.
Redpath has lived in Oppenheimer Park for nearly the full year that it’s been in place and while it’s often framed as a place of violence, he said it’s safer than any other place he’s stayed in recent years.
“This has brought me some semblance of community, safety and security, which I haven’t had elsewhere. That’s why I’m here,” he said Friday.
“Everywhere I go, I’m looked at with disgust and disdain and here I can actually somewhat move on with my life and get moving forward in a positive direction.”
The encampment in the city’s Downtown Eastside is one of many that have sprung up across the province in recent years due to a lack of housing.
Vancouver’s park board has full jurisdiction over the park and has taken a cautious approach in how it deals with the camp, resisting calls for swifter action.
In September, board commissioners voted against seeking an injunction, despite hearing from representatives from city hall, police and fire departments who spoke in favour of forcing the campers out.
It also resisted mounting pressure to cede jurisdiction to the city, including from Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who argued the city is better able to negotiate with senior levels of government on behalf of the campers, who may need a “nudge” to leave.
This week, the board finally voted to approve a request for an injunction, citing winter temperatures and the deteriorating state of the camp. But several conditions must first be met and there is no set timeline.
The board will commission an independent third-party assessment of the situation based on consultations with residents. It will give recommendations to enhance safety, provide support and seek appropriate shelter as part a “decampment” plan.
At the same time, staff will be directed to revise an existing bylaw that prohibits people from sheltering in parks after hours, a type of bylaw the board said courts have struck down in other municipalities.
“While we know this will take time, I am optimistic that we have developed a plan to improve conditions for people experiencing homelessness in Oppenheimer Park and to move toward a safe resolution,” park board chairman Stuart Mackinnon said in a statement.
The plan comes as Vancouver police continue to express concerns about safety in the park.
On Thursday, police said they deployed resources, after they found a man suffering from a gunshot wound. Spokeswoman Const. Tania Visintin said the man was taken to hospital with non-life threatening injuries but couldn’t say if he was a resident in the encampment.
“I can’t imagine what kind of terrifying incident this is for all those residents in the park,” she said, adding that police plan to maintain a strong presence there.
The shooting is the second in the area since September, when the police department issued a statement expressing concern about the “deteriorating level of public safety” in the park and surrounding area.
Emergency calls for police to the park had almost doubled from June to August, compared with the same period last year, it said.
“Since the beginning of the year there has been a significant spike in crime and street disorder stemming out of Oppenheimer Park, and sprawling into the Downtown Eastside,” Deputy Chief Const. Howard Chow, said in the statement.
On Friday, Visintin declined to say whether the department is satisfied with the urgency of the park board’s plan.
“We do support the parks board as well as the City of Vancouver on their plan to get good housing for the people in Oppenheimer Park. Our main concern is the safety of everyone in the park and the surrounding neighbourhood,” she said.
Advocates held a one-year birthday party for the park Friday, which included food, music and free legal advice.
Anna Cooper, staff lawyer with Pivot Legal Society, warned that evicting residents may only cause further harm.
“What I urge everybody to understand is that we need to stop waiting for incidents to happen at tent cities to use those as an excuse to displace people,” she said.
Vancouver Coun. Jean Swanson, who is also an anti-poverty advocate, said it doesn’t make sense to evict campers from the park before housing is available.
Council has heard there’s a zero per cent vacancy rate for the lowest-income residents of the city, she said. And only 11 residents of Oppenheimer Park have been relocated since August, she said.
At the same time, housing stock for the city’s lowest-income residents could shrink soon. Four of the city’s single-room occupancy (SRO) buildings, which are typically the last place people can afford to live before they become homeless, are advertised for sale as “microlofts” and “investment opportunities,” she said.
And while the province built 600 modular homes last year, this year’s budget included funding for only 200 more across the province, she said.
“The issue is we need housing those people can afford,” she said.
“It’s not safe to be homeless, you don’t have a door to lock. But at the park, they have put up their own overdose prevention site, they have a 911 call box and they have each other to help, which they don’t have if they’re dispersed onto the streets and alleys.
Amy Smart, The Canadian Press