The targeted shooting of a woman as she visited a homeless man at a sprawling tent city in a Downtown Eastside park underscores warnings police have been issuing for a month about escalating violence at the site, a police spokesman says.
But despite the shooting and police concern, members of the city’s parks board, which has jurisdiction over the park, have rejected recommendations from the mayor to get a court injunction to clear the tent city, which now has about 300 residents.
And some people living at the park say they are taking measures to further entrench the encampment.
A police spokesman said the shooting of the 53-year-old woman just west of Oppenheimer Park on Saturday was an “isolated and targeted event.”
"We do believe this to be linked to the Oppenheimer safety concerns that police have been speaking about for the last month and a half,” Sergeant Aaron Roed said on Monday.
Police have said public safety is deteriorating in the area because of the tent city, with an increase in weapons, violence and calls for service. In September, Chief Constable Adam Palmer said rival gangs are fighting over the lucrative market of selling drugs to homeless people.
The shooting victim had surgery for life-threatening injuries. Sgt. Roed said he could not elaborate on the weapon used or whether the gunfire came from the park. But he said the shooting is linked to conflicts among gangs and violence in the area.
Mayor Kennedy Stewart has said he would like the city to get jurisdiction over the park so it can co-ordinate a response to get people housed, and get an injunction to return the park to its original condition, but he said as long as the park board refuses to allow that, he has no control over what happens there.
Vancouver Park Board chair Stuart Mackinnon has said the board won’t clear the camp until the mayor proves there is a housing plan. Mr. Stewart has said he is not going to spend time developing one when the board insists it has sole control.
Mr. Mackinnon did not respond to e-mails and calls seeking comment, and Mr. Stewart was not available on Monday to comment.
Park Board member John Irwin, of the Coalition of Progressive Electors – which, with the Green Party, dominates the board – said he cannot speak about what the board will do next, but questioned whether an injunction was necessary.
“I know this issue is troubling, but it reflects an overall level of violence across the Downtown Eastside tied to the opioid crisis," he said. “I know it’s difficult for the police, but they have the tools available, I would argue, to deal with this kind of stuff without an injunction.”
He said there might be an emergency motion to hold an in camera meeting. “But so far, that is not happening,” he said.
Tricia Barker, a board member from the centre-right Non-Partisan Association, said she and fellow NPA member John Coupar favour an injunction, but don’t have enough votes to force the issue.
“I do not know what is going to have to happen to change the other commissioners’ minds to put the injunction in place, and until then, we are just having the police deal with the escalation,” she said.
People who live in the park say it’s a haven for them. Advocates for the homeless say they are making efforts to support residents.
“We as a community are settling in just fine. I am hopeful we can continue to move forward about how people can continue to feel safe,” said Chrissy Brett, who is from the Nuxalk band in Bella Coola. She rents a house in Victoria for herself and her children, but sleeps several nights a week in Oppenheimer Park to help support and organize those living there.
She is hopeful the park community can become stronger.
“One thing I’ve seen through fasting and a vision quest is a tent city run completely by the community, with no government help,” she said.
Ms. Brett, who has helped at homeless camps on Vancouver Island, said the park will get a heated lounge for drinkers this week to go along with a newly donated tent for an overdose-prevention area established weeks ago. Both can be used as warming centres as winter approaches.
Still, some of the neighbors of the tent city have become alarmed at increasing violence.
Patrick Couling, a volunteer at the Buddhist temple across the street from the park’s northeast corner, said he has seen many positive developments, but also some deterioration, especially recently.
He said a much “harder” crowd moved in months ago. “When the camping first started, it was casual. However, the situation is now dangerous.” And although he admires what Ms. Brett and others have done to bring order, Mr. Couling said the situation seems to have become worse in the past week, with more garbage and disorder.
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