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British Columbia All sides are playing politics over tent city in Vancouver

Tent city at Oppenheimer park in downtown Vancouver on Aug, 21, 2019.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs

Almost five years ago, then mayor Gregor Robertson announced the city was seeking a court injunction to force homeless campers to vacate Oppenheimer Park. At the time, about 100 people were living in the park and concern over health and safety had reached a point where the city felt it necessary to disband the tent city.

Mr. Robertson publicly led the charge, even though Oppenheimer Park falls under the jurisdiction of Vancouver Park Board, not the city. But those were different political times. In Oct. 2014, when the injunction was granted, Mr. Robertson’s now-moribund party, Vision Vancouver, held a large majority on both city council and park board. The park board took a back seat, let the mayor play the heavy and the tent city was dismantled.

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This summer, the rebuilt tent city in Oppenheimer Park has grown even larger. With about 200 tents on site, there have been numerous fires and assaults and police complained to the city about safety. Park board staff recommended an injunction, but a majority alliance of commissioners from the Green Party and Coalition of Progressive Electors balked.

After hustling to find some kind of shelter for all the campers, the park board manager issued a clearance order which carries less clout than an injunction. Many of the homeless people accepted the housing on offer and all the permanent residences were snapped up.

But a core group has held fast, saying they would rather live in tents than temporary shelters. Again, park board and city staff recommended seeking an injunction to clear the remaining 40 or so tents. Again, the park board refused, saying an injunction wouldn’t solve anything and would simply turf the remaining homeless people onto streets, back alleys or other parks.

Mayor Kennedy Stewart has now entered the fray by asking the park board to cede control of Oppenheimer Park to city council so it can solve the problem with help from the provincial and federal governments. The implication, although he didn’t exactly say it, was he would support an injunction and turn on the pressure for more cash, perhaps for additional modular housing which is quick to construct and more palatable than shelters.

I suppose Mr. Stewart felt he had to say something – headlines about Oppenheimer Park and the increasing street disorder in the Downtown Eastside have dominated the city news agenda this summer. But his request amounts to little more than theatre.

The park board is not about to hand over control of a park to city council. Furthermore, Mr. Stewart has been hounding the provincial and federal governments for housing money since the day he was elected. Some funding has come through. But there’s no reason to think clearing the park of tents will make it flow any faster.

In fact, some activists supporting the tent city believe the visual reminder of our homelessness problem is more likely to garner housing results than hiding homeless people away in shelters. After all, it worked last time. When Mr. Robertson cleared Oppenheimer Park in 2014, the city leased a motel to house those evicted. This council has so far rejected that option.

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It’s hard to fathom that living in a shelter would be much less safe than Oppenheimer Park, where police have responded to 500 calls this year, including one for the sexual assault of a teenage girl.

But that’s the argument the tent city residents make for refusing to move to shelters. Park board chair Stuart MacKinnon makes a good point; you can force people to leave Oppenheimer Park, but you can’t force them into shelters. The problem with letting them stay is it permanently renders one of the only downtown green spaces unusable as a park.

Mr. Stewart makes a good point as well. By failing to clear the park, the city allows a dangerous situation to continue and normalizes tent cities. The problem with his offer to take control of the problem is it almost certainly won’t happen, and surely, he knew that when he said it.

The sad truth is, there isn’t enough decent housing to go around. All sides, including the activists who would rather see tents in the park all winter than any half-measure, are playing politics. And that’s a shame.

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