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B.C. government signs ‘historic’ agreement to prevent homeless camps in Vancouver

Strathcona Park encampment on track to be dismantled by end of April
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The Strathcona Park encampment was set up in June 2020. Photo Rob Kruyt/BIV News
The B.C. government has signed a “historic” but ambitious agreement with the City of Vancouver and the park board to end the Strathcona Park homeless camp by the end of April and prevent future encampments in the city.

The memorandum of understanding announced Monday sets out some lofty goals considering the city’s history of encampments and the failure of previous governments to respond to Vancouver’s ever-growing homelessness crisis.

One of the key commitments from the provincial government is written on page three of the document, which reads:

“To work with government partners to fund and develop temporary and permanent housing options to reduce the number of unsheltered residents in parks and public spaces to zero and to create flow in established shelter and supportive housing.”

The city’s main role in the agreement will be to provide land for housing or shelter “and to expedite land use decisions necessary to rapidly respond to housing need,” the document said.

The park board also must enforce its parks control bylaw to keep people from setting up encampments, but only when “suitable spaces are available for people to move indoors.”

The agreement comes after David Eby, B.C.’s attorney general and minister responsible for housing, promised in February that every person in Strathcona Park would be moved into some form of shelter by the end of April.

“I asked BC Housing to prepare a plan with a timeline that they thought they could meet,” Eby told Glacier Media Feb. 2.

“So they looked at the tools that they had available and how quickly they could partner with nonprofits and staff up and all those kinds of pieces, and they came up with a date at the end of April.”

The agreement also comes after several weeks of announcements made by the provincial and federal governments, along with Mayor Kennedy Stewart, related to reducing homelessness in Vancouver.

Between them, they announced purchases and leases of hotels, motels, modular housing projects, rent supplements and shelter space for homeless people and those at risk of homelessness.

Estimates have varied on the number of people living in Strathcona Park, with up to 200 or more at one point. The city’s housing staff’s most recent estimate puts the total number of people living on the street across Vancouver at 750.

Over the past decade, encampments in Vancouver have been commonplace, with Oppenheimer Park, “Sugar Mountain” on Franklin Street, a parking lot adjacent to CRAB Park and Strathcona Park being the most visible sites.

An Occupy Vancouver tent city also covered the plaza of the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2011.

Echoing what’s written in the document, Eby said in Tuesday’s news release that his government has committed “not just to resolve the current humanitarian crisis for those living in and around Strathcona Park by the end of this month, but on a proactive and ongoing basis to minimize the risk of future problems, while providing the housing people need.”

In the same release, Stewart reiterated a concern he’s expressed publicly since the pandemic was declared in March 2020, noting how COVID-19 has hit the city’s most vulnerable especially hard.

"It's clear we need long-term, coordinated action across jurisdictions, and that's what today's historic MOU does,” the mayor said.

“It gives us a plan to follow, to get those experiencing homelessness into homes, with the critical supports and services they need to get back onto their feet.”

The agreement calls for the park board to lead on managing Strathcona Park as the encampment is dismantled, in co-ordination with partners.

This includes installing fencing and bylaw enforcement to prevent people from moving back into the park and remediating the site for future community use.

"This collaborative, institutional alignment helps with the current work being done at Strathcona Park, including the plan already in motion to end the encampment there," said Camil Dumont, chairperson of the park board, in the release.

"The role definition, framing of responsibility and explicit outlining of expectation agreed to in this MOU will also help the park board, city and Province as we work together to effectively meet future challenges in the relationship between park space and homelessness in our community.”

With the recent hotel purchases and the new temporary shelter spaces coming to the city, the B.C. government says there will be more than 300 available supportive homes and indoor spaces, in addition to the 450 supportive homes already on the way.

The encampment at Strathcona Park has been in place since June 2020 and is the largest in Vancouver, if not the province, and has been at the centre of public debate and scene of violence, fires, overdose deaths and the arrest of a murder suspect.

mhowell@glaciermedia.ca

@Howellings