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British Columbia Tent city on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside old headache for the new mayor

Fire Marshalls conduct inspections and tear down offending tents at Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver on July 18, 2019.

Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

When Bryan Piché moved into Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park four months ago after being kicked out of his rented room nearby because the landlord didn’t like his music, there were only a few people pitching their tents.

Now, in the height of summer, this Downtown Eastside park is as full as any provincial campground, with several dozen tents and tarps, as well as piles of belongings – including food-courier bags, side tables, yoga mats, bikes, camp chairs and pool floaties – accompanying each one.

“It’s grown. There’s just so many of us,” says the 43-year-old Mr. Piché, sitting on a bench in the sunshine Thursday, wearing plaid pyjama bottoms and a black hoodie, watching as city garbage crews, firefighters and police work their way through the tents clearing out trash and anything deemed a fire risk.

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The park has turned, once again, into a flashpoint for the homelessness crisis in the city as it reaches critical mass.

The numbers have spiked higher this year, which some say is a combination of several Downtown Eastside hotels being shut down, along with the continuing loss of cheap rentals in the area as they get spruced up and marketed to desperate younger people trying to rent in the city.

The city pulled its staff out of the field house in the park this week, saying that employees are having to spend so much time cleaning up and dealing with disputes that they can’t do the job they’re supposed to be there for: programming recreation activities for park users. Three community events normally scheduled for the park have been moved.

Police have said they are concerned about sending officers into the one-block-square park after someone was shot on the perimeter and an officer was assaulted, in separate incidents.

And the debate is growing over what to do about this stark demonstration of the city’s homelessness problem, which was tallied at about 2,200 people during a one-day count this spring. About 600 of those people were living on the streets; the rest were in shelters.

One downtown business representative, Charles Gauthier, has suggested the city should set up a sanctioned site for camping, with services like showers and cooking facilities.

It’s an old problem. COPE city councillor Jean Swanson would like to see the city do what it did under Mayor Gregor Robertson in 2014, when the park population spiked – lease or buy a hotel and move everyone there.

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In the meantime, she’s worried that city and police will start trying to simply clear the park.

She and many other advocates in the area say people are better off and safer living in the park, where they can watch out for each other, than sleeping alone in alleys and other isolated spots.

“They’re using the shooting incident as an excuse to displace people. I’ve argued they’re safer there together,” Ms. Swanson said.

But today’s mayor, Kennedy Stewart, is not promising any similar solution to the one in 2014, which relied on a developer being willing to lease a hotel for a few years while he was waiting for permits for a condo project.

The mayor said that, while all options are on the table to resolve the issue, the strategy for the moment is to try to find social-housing apartments, one at a time, for those in the park.

“We have successfully relocated a number of people, but with the large number, it is becoming stressful,” Mr. Stewart said.

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There is no sign that a temporary modular-housing project will be the answer, the way it was for homeless people who had been living in tents at a site called Sugar Mountain on Powell Street.

Mr. Stewart said the next temporary modular-housing site scheduled to open is in southeast Vancouver next February.

But, he says, he is feeling hopeful after a conversation Thursday morning with federal Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos that a permanent solution in the form of large and long-term housing money – not just a temporary relief valve – is on the way.

“We did have a great conversation. They’re very gripped by the situation here. I’m feeling very hopeful that help is on its way.”

Mr. Stewart said the $1.3-billion that the federal government just handed to Toronto to tackle housing and homelessness problems is something Vancouver would love to see.

But he acknowledged that it’s easier to give Toronto money, because that city is responsible for managing its own social housing after the province downloaded that job to Ontario cities in 1998. In British Columbia, any federal money has to flow through the provincial government first.

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In the meantime, city, fire and police staff are doing regular patrols of the park to ensure there are no fire issues and to pick up garbage.

The paramedics who serve the area are reporting no problems going into the site.

“We are not experiencing any issues at the park,” said Shannon Miller, a spokesperson for B.C. Emergency Health Services. “For the most part, when paramedics are called to the park they are welcomed; patients want to see them.”

There were 124 paramedic visits to the park in the first half of 2019, with the number of calls on track to get to 50 for the month of July – close to the same as in 2018. About 20 per cent of the calls are for overdoses. Police were called to the park 92 times in June.

For Mr. Piché, the park is a pleasant home for the summer – “I like it outside with no walls, and fresh air” – but not a place he wants to stay forever. He is not a drug user, but he lives on disability cheques and wants to stay in Vancouver to be close to his daughter, who is working as a nurse at a local hospital.

He said camping in the park is not ideal. Some days, things are bucolic, with people gathering at park benches to talk, playing ball games, sweeping the dirt in front of their tents – along with non-campers strolling through with their groceries or dogs. But Mr. Piché said anyone living there has to be wary because there is a lot of theft and “a whole bunch of people really pissed off about life.”

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He hopes that the city workers who have talked to him occasionally will find him an indoor place before winter.

“I gotta get back inside.”

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