In a once lovely park, in a once pleasant neighbourhood on the east side of Vancouver, a travesty – and national scandal – is unfolding.
This is where a homeless encampment has grown exponentially over the last number of weeks. Where there were 30 tents of some manner and description at Strathcona Park almost three months ago, a recent census found that there are now roughly 250 people living there. Local residents are angry and, increasingly, frightened.
And why wouldn’t they be?
The Strathcona Residents’ Association (SRA) has been logging incidents that those living in the neighbourhood have brought to its attention. Just the other day, for instance, a young family returned to their home with a young baby in the backseat of their car and found two people shooting up in their driveway. When the couple asked the pair to leave, they were sworn at and threatened with physical violence.
According to SRA spokesperson Katie Lewis, residents have been intimidated with knives, crowbars and guns. Dogs have been kidnapped. Discarded needles are found everywhere – daily. Some campers have tried to break into homes. One threatened to gouge the eyes of a young child out walking with their mother. Human excrement can be found everywhere, including in the yards and alleyways of people living near the park.
This crisis has been bubbling over the course of a couple years. In 2018, a group of homeless people and activists took over Oppenheimer Park in the heart of Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside. The camp remained for almost 18 months before the province negotiated an end to it by finding permanent housing for those who wanted it. But before that deal was reached, Oppenheimer had become a drug-infested, crime-riddled disaster zone in which a murder was committed, women were beaten and sexually assaulted, guns were found in dangerous hands and violence was commonplace.
When the city cleared the site, they removed 97 tonnes of garbage, from mattresses to shopping carts.
Those who didn’t want permanent housing moved to another nearby park, land owned by the Vancouver Port Authority, which quickly moved to seek a court injunction from allowing the campers to set up a permanent base there. When it was granted, camp residents moved to Strathcona Park, a few blocks from the heart of the Downtown Eastside – an area that has the lowest socio-economic profile in the country, but is also filled with million-dollar-plus homes owned by the professional class.
Generally, those same people have, over the years, earned a reputation as a progressive, compassionate lot. But everyone has a breaking point, and this camp has helped them reach it. People are increasingly concerned for their personal safety and the safety of their young children, especially since hundreds of young kids will be walking to a nearby elementary school in less than a week.
The Vancouver Parks Board has been reluctant to disband the camp during the COVID-19 pandemic. The city’s mayor, Kennedy Stewart, is looking elsewhere for a solution; the provincial government says it is monitoring the situation, while the federal government is staying out of it. Meanwhile, residents are growing more furious by the day. And who can blame them?
This situation would never be tolerated in other parts of the city, like the tony neighbourhoods on the west side, let alone most other parts of the country. But because it’s near the Downtown Eastside, where campers can get easy access to drugs and social services, and where neighbourhood denizens are seen as an empathetic lot, the camp endures.
But that’s taking advantage of people’s better natures.
This is not to underestimate the complexity of the problem. You can’t simply bring in bulldozers and mow it down. But a solution has to be found. Another site needs to be located, one that isn’t in the centre of a residential neighbourhood filled with young children.
The campers, for their part, have issued a rather unreasonable list of demands before they will consider leaving. They include the annual building of 10,000 units of social housing without drug or guest restrictions, until everyone wanting a home is accommodated; a safe and steady supply of opiates, as well as alcohol and tobacco; and $2,000 a month in government assistance.
The longer governments wait to deal with this matter, the more serious it will become. Colder weather is on the way, which means campers will start building more fires, which pose real hazards. As more campers arrive, violence will increase. The safety of those in the neighbourhood will deteriorate further.
This situation is unconscionable. Something needs to be done now.
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