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British Columbia Vancouver mayor says dangerous cooking fires, assault of teenage girl underscore need to clear remaining campers at Oppenheimer Park

Amber Willett, 25, who moved to Vancouver from Edmonton four years ago, stands outside her tent as she packs up her belongings in preparation to move to a room at the former Biltmore Hotel, at the homeless camp at Oppenheimer Park in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, on Aug. 20, 2019.

DARRYL DYCK/Handout

Vancouver’s mayor says dangerous cooking fires and the recent assault of a teenage girl underscore the need to clear the remaining four dozen campers from the large tent city in a Downtown Eastside park, and he hinted a court injunction may now be needed.

Mayor Kennedy Stewart said at a news conference Wednesday that the Vancouver Park Board has not acted quickly enough to end the encampment at Oppenheimer Park, despite 127 campers agreeing last month to move into housing units and out of the site that began attracting homeless people last year.

“When I hear there has been an underaged girl that has been assaulted, when I hear there’s 20 fires, when I hear there’s 500 police calls [this year], and there’s other things I can’t share with you, something has to move,” the mayor told reporters at City Hall.

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Mr. Stewart hinted that a court injunction, which ended the last big encampment in the park five years ago, is needed.

“We’re finding now that some folks in the park might need a little nudge to move ahead,” he said.

Mr. Stewart said the park board needs to present a clear plan to relocate those in the tent city or else he will temporarily wrest control of Oppenheimer, a move he said would allow him to centralize the decision-making on the complex problem that needs support from the provincial and federal governments.

The park board and city council have been discussing how to deal with the massive tent city in secret, which makes it “very hard for us to exchange information," he said.

The park board, which manages the city’s 230 parks and is the only elected body of its kind in Canada, e-mailed a terse statement Wednesday afternoon saying it will take the mayor’s request under consideration.

People have been sleeping in tents in the park since last year and as many as 200 people were thought to be camping there when the municipal park board issued an eviction deadline for Aug. 21.

The majority of campers moved into supportive housing, but city staff and BC Housing are now trying to get the remaining campers to agree to sleep in nearby shelters, which advocates say offer worse living situations.

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Fiona York, co-ordinator and administrator with the Carnegie Community Action Project, a community group that lobbies for affordable housing in the Downtown Eastside, said public safety stats used by the mayor merely point to the park being a microcosm of the surrounding neighbourhood. She added that many campers and locals with housing say they feel more safe in the park.

“People still go to a place of community for safety and that’s been expressed to us over and over,” said Ms. York, who added the overdose prevention site in the one-square-block park operates 24/7.

Jean Swanson, a long-time housing advocate in the area before joining city council last election, said the campers are not leaving the park because many shelters are not safe places and a lot “don’t take partners, pets or possessions.” Instead, she argued, a tent city would allow the city to better focus all three levels of government on a plan that will actually tackle Metro Vancouver’s homelessness problem.

Two thirds of both the board and the city council would need to approve a motion giving temporary jurisdiction of the park over to City Hall, as is stipulated in Vancouver’s unique charter.

John Coupar, a three-term park board commissioner who waited in the wings of Mr. Stewart’s news conference, said afterward that he supported using an injunction to clear the park, but he was shocked at the mayor’s proposal and would not vote in favour of the city taking control.

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