Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs.
Organizers of Vancouver’s Powell Street Festival acknowledged last month that they would not be able to host their annual celebration of Japanese Canadian art and culture in its usual location of Oppenheimer Park in the city’s Downtown Eastside.
The park is currently packed with more than 100 tents occupied by homeless people, and organizers had no interest in displacing anyone to make way for the event. “We lived in that neighbourhood and we were displaced,” festival executive director Emiko Morita says, referencing the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. “To contribute to the displacement of marginalized people isn’t something we would want to be a part of.” The celebration will go on: streets are being closed near the park for the Aug. 3 and 4 festivities.
The homeless campers, who have been occupying Oppenheimer Park for about a year, drive home our dismal failure to curb homelessness – numbers in Vancouver reached a record high of 2,223 this year. The city has no alternative housing to offer and so, by law, must allow the tent city to remain. The rising numbers are depressing given the efforts to increase the city’s stock of shelter-rate housing which rents for $375 a month. The 600 units of temporary modular housing units funded by the provincial government filled as fast as they went up. The tent city is a testament to how much more is still needed.
Which brings me to the park. At what point does a tent city become so entrenched that it is in effect permanent, rendering the park unusable as green space? And once we hit that point, what should the city do to ensure conditions are safe, sanitary and humane for the homeless people living there? Could it be time to give up on Oppenheimer as a park and cede the space to temporary modular housing – with an emphasis on temporary?
This debate is continuing among city councillors and business leaders, who all agree something needs to be done, but not about the best way forward. This spring, Councillor Jean Swanson asked council to buy a hotel to house the people or, failing that, bring in toilets, a warming tent and other amenities to improve conditions in the camp. Council deemed a hotel too expensive but did put up porta-potties and agree to a warming shelter when winter rolls around again. Charles Gauthier, from the Downtown Business Improvement Association, suggests going further with large sturdy tents lined with bunk beds like those built for homeless people in San Diego. But many others believe improving infrastructure too much will give the tent city an air of permanence, making it impossible to remove.
British Columbia court rulings on such encampments, which concluded homeless people can’t be evicted from sleeping in parks at night if there is nowhere else for them to go, ensures the tents at Oppenheimer Park will remain. Even when the situation was far less dire, homeless campers were drawn to the Downtown Eastside park which is close to food and health-care services. The conditions at Oppenheimer have also become unsafe, with the Vancouver police saying they responded to nearly 100 calls in June alone. This week, there was a shooting in the park and in another incident a police officer was assaulted while assisting city crews.
And when I asked Celine Mauboules, Vancouver’s homelessness director, what the city’s plan is going forward, she spoke mostly about efforts to co-ordinate services that help people from becoming homeless in the first place. There are 175 permanent shelter-rate units coming on stream between now and 2020. To build more would require a major infusion of cash from all levels of government, she added.
Since the provincial NDP was elected, the government has spent $105-million to build modular housing, 120 units of permanent, shelter-rate housing and operate year-round shelters.
The federal government, when it announced its National Housing Strategy, set a goal of cutting chronic homelessness by 50 per cent. So far, its contribution has been a $28-million top-up to the city’s modular housing fund, with promises of $83-million more to come.
I’d like to see the some of that promised cash expedited for temporary modular housing in Oppenheimer Park and the remainder and then some invested in permanent housing. Lest anyone argue that homelessness is only a west coast problem, look at Toronto where the last Street Needs Assessment pegged the estimated homeless numbers at 8,700. National problems deserve attention from our national level of government. It’s time the feds stepped up.
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