Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Vancouver police officers watch over tent city at Oppenheimer park in downtown Vancouver, on Aug. 21, 2019.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

The homeless camp in a park at the heart of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is attracting so much violence, drug dealing and gangs that it has become an intolerable crisis, police say.

In a special presentation to the Vancouver Police Board on Thursday, Deputy Chief Howard Chow said police calls to Oppenheimer Park have skyrocketed, along with weapons seizures. There has been a noticeable increase in stabbings and attacks with weapons.

As well, he said, police have been “swarmed” on five separate occasions by large groups challenging them and that police teams of four are now the minimum required when they go into the park at night.

Chief Adam Palmer added there are rival gangs, including the UN gang, Wolf Pack and a Middle Eastern gang, fighting over the lucrative market of selling drugs to homeless people, which is the main contributor to the violence.

Deputy Chief Chow said an effort to find housing for people living in tents in the park made some progress last month, when the general manager for the Vancouver Park Board had a three-day special order to clear Oppenheimer.

The number of tents went down to about 75 from 180 as housing-agency staffers did a blitz in the park to offer people housing, but the number has crept up since then to 120, because there has been no court injunction to prevent the tents.

The current park board, dominated by commissioners aligned with the Green and Coalition of Progressive Electors parties, voted against asking for an injunction in early September, in spite of a request from the park board’s general manager for it. As well, in response to a request from Mayor Kennedy Stewart to have the city, with its greater resources, take over control of the park temporarily, the commissioners responded that they would like to see a “multijurisdictional task force” to work on the issue instead.

But the mayor and Chief Palmer both say they have no jurisdiction to ask for an injunction themselves, leaving everything in limbo.

Mr. Stewart said it’s now up to the park board. “They want the responsibility, they can take it.”

Park board chair Stuart Mackinnon did not respond to several requests for comment by deadline.

Mr. Stewart said he is working behind the scenes with the province to find even more housing units available immediately, but Chief Palmer acknowledged that without an injunction, it’s likely the park will fill up again.

Both Deputy Chief Chow and Chief Palmer emphasized that police have dealt with many homeless camps in Vancouver in the past and they don’t necessarily always get to a boiling point like this.

But the situation has become especially grim at Oppenheimer, they said.

There have been 700 calls to police for service since the beginning of the year. They’ve seized 223 guns in the policing district where the park is located and 476 other weapons. There’s been a 30-per-cent increase in violent crime in that district the past three months.

Those who work with nearby businesses and social-service agencies said they are hearing the same kind of distress from their contacts, many of whom have worked in the area for 20 years or more and know the neighbourhood and its challenges well.

“The violence has become overwhelming,” said Patricia Barnes, a police board member who runs the Hastings North Business Improvement Association.

Another board member, Sherri Magee, said she gets the same kinds of stories from Downtown Eastside agencies whose boards she sits on.

“Residents have been threatened in their own space, businesses can’t run because workers don’t want to be there.”

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe