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Vancouver councillors seek to ‘bridge impasse’ over Oppenheimer Park tent city

Green/NPA alliance behind move to request park board reconsider seeking injunction
The encampment at Oppenheimer Park continues as politicians have yet to reach a common decision on addressing the growing number of homeless in the park. Photo Dan Toulgoet

An alliance of NPA and Green Party councillors will introduce a motion at next week’s council meeting that aims to clear Oppenheimer Park of homeless people and get them into housing.

NPA Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung said the move is meant to “bridge the impasse” between Mayor Kennedy Stewart and the park board, which will not seek a court injunction to remove the campers.

“We’re asking the park board to revisit their injunction decision,” Kirby-Yung told the Courier Tuesday during a break at the Union of B.C. Municipalities Conference at the Vancouver Convention Centre.

Kirby-Yung was joined by NPA Coun. Lisa Dominato and Green Party Coun. Pete Fry as she spoke to the Courier. Green Party Coun. Michael Wiebe was not present, but the trio said he is leading the motion.

Earlier this month, the park board also rebuffed the mayor’s request to cede temporary jurisdiction of Oppenheimer to the city, leaving Stewart without any power to implement a plan to resolve occupation of the park.

The councillors’ move comes the same day as park board commissioners John Coupar and Tricia Barker called on park board chairperson Stuart Mackinnon to convene a special meeting of the board Sept. 26 related to the deteriorating conditions at Oppenheimer.

“This is more about people than a partisan issue,” said Kirby-Yung, who belongs to the same party as Coupar and Barker.

The councillors made it clear they want “decampment” of the park, but not without housing and services in place for the homeless, whose numbers continue to grow and fluctuate; a city estimate two weeks ago had 40 people sleeping in Oppenheimer.

They want the mayor to write a follow-up letter to the park board expressing council’s concerns about various health and safety issues in Oppenheimer and the need to resolve them swiftly.

None of the councillors was consulted in the mayor’s initial move in early September to have the park board cede temporary jurisdiction of Oppenheimer to the city.

The councillors’ motion, which was shared with the Courier, requests the park board take “all reasonable steps within its jurisdictional power and work collaboratively with the city to facilitate the decampment of those currently living in the park.”

Some other requests include:

  • The city, in partnership with “key partners,” create a cross-jurisdictional homeless outreach services team that serves to connect unsheltered and sheltered people to housing, health and support services.
  • The city and park board look to expand the initial success of the “park stewardship program,” which aims to provide daily access for homeless people to showers and washrooms.
  • The city and park board explore options for needed services such as community kitchens, additional accessible laundry and drying facilities, and 24-hour sanitation facilities with running water.

Dominato suggested emergency funding come from the provincial government to access and operate a low-barrier shelter for the campers, whom the police have said are being preyed on by gangsters and known criminals.

Premier John Horgan would not commit to such a request when asked by the Courier – during an unrelated news conference at the convention centre – whether the provincial government would buy a building or provide money for services for the campers.

“Certainly, we’re working with the City of Vancouver and the [park] board as best we can,” he said. “These are issues that are squarely in the lap of the City of Vancouver.”

The premier said his government has committed to $7 billion in housing initiatives over the next three years, and provided funding for the city’s 10 temporary modular housing sites.

His government, he said, is doing “its level best to address tent encampments as they emerge.”

“We’ve done so in Maple Ridge, we’ve done so in Victoria, we’ve done so in Surrey and in Nanaimo,” he said. “The Vancouver challenge is a significant one, and we stand ready to work with Mayor Kennedy Stewart and his council.”

Asked whether he would support the city seeking a court injunction to clear the park, Horgan said he would await the decisions by the city before providing a response.

The mayor has said in recent weeks that he and his staff continue to meet with provincial and federal government officials to secure more funding for housing in Vancouver — “even if I don’t have anything I can do formally around Oppenheimer.”

Stewart told reporters Sept. 19 that he didn’t “do the hypotheticals” when asked if he would seek an injunction — if the park board revisited ceding temporary jurisdiction to the city.

Police Chief Adam Palmer and Deputy Chief Howard Chow made it clear last week that the department supported the park board or city seeking an injunction to remove people from the park.

The crime in the park and surrounding area has escalated, they said, speaking to reporters prior to a weekend where three shootings occurred in the Downtown Eastside.

“We’re seeing a shift of street-level gangs moving over to Oppenheimer Park fighting amongst one and other, and also intimidating people that live in the park,” said the chief, noting gangs represented include the United Nations, Wolfpack and Middle Eastern organized crime.

“There’s a whole host of different people jockeying for position in that park, and it’s dangerous and it’s a concern.”

Fry, who lives in Strathcona, said he has been inundated with calls from people who are stressed about the conditions at Oppenheimer Park and the public disorder across the Downtown Eastside.

“They’re looking to us — their elected people — to do something,” he said.