'The rubber has to hit the road': Oppenheimer Park homeless camp prompts calls for federal support

Vancouver's mayor says its time for Ottawa to step in as a growing homeless camp in the city's Downtown Eastside has ignited safety concerns and calls for social housing.

The Oppenheimer Park encampment has been growing for more than a year. RCMP advised the public to steer clear of the area following a shooting near the park last week.

While advocates maintain the park is the only manageable living option for the people who live there, Mayor Kennedy Stewart says finding housing for all residents is the city's priority — but it can't be done without federal support.

"We have had lots of federal promises for housing, but now the rubber has to hit the road," Stewart said Wednesday at a media briefing. "I'm nervous as the election comes up that there's a challenge of making that happen."

Ottawa announced plans to cut homelessness in half across Canada earlier this year.

"We really need the feds to come in now," added Stewart. "We can't [house homeless residents] without the money to back that up," said Stewart.

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Stewart said discussions with Canada's Department of Social Development are ongoing. He's expected to speak with federal Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos Thursday morning.

Stewart said the city is prepping a new modular home site that will likely open in February.

Displacement concerns mount

But other representatives at city hall are fearful residents will be displaced before any suitable living options are made available.

Coun. Jean Swanson would not confirm if there were back-room talks about a possible park eviction, but she is worried that might happen after a 31-year-old man was shot in the park last week.

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"I'm really afraid that the shooting is going to be used as an excuse to force everyone out of the park before there is adequate, decent housing for them, and they won't be safe if they're dispersed," said Swanson.

"They need to be together so that other people can look after their tents, so there can be help if there is an overdose," she added.

City officials say there are more than 100 tents at the park. Earlier this year, Swanson put forward a motion for the city to lease a motel for the homeless residents, but it was defeated.

Fiona York, coordinator at the Carnegie Community Action Project, works with campers in the park and echoed Swanson's idea about leasing a hotel as a possible solution, especially in the coming months when the temperature drops.

History repeats itself

Former city councillor George Affleck suspects city staff are discussing the next course of action at in-camera meetings.

He was on council when the city sought a court order to remove a previous tent city from Oppenheimer Park.

Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC

"Slowly, after two years, especially during an election campaign, the tents started moving back in, and as a result, we are where we are today — and this council has done nothing to deal with it," he told CBC News.

Affleck says in previous park evictions, city staff were able to accommodate most of the evicted residents. He admits it might be a challenge finding places for residents this time around, but is urging the city to act before someone else gets hurt.

"We've had events cancelled, we've had police say they don't want to go into this park now. This is a serious situation, people's lives are endangered," he added. "This should not be condoned, we should not be putting up with this, and the city needs to take a tougher stance on it."

Renee Filippone/CBC

In a statement, the Vancouver Police Department said there has been a sharp increase in violence and 911 emergency calls from the park. There were 92 emergency calls in June, up from 56 calls for service in June 2018.

York says she is in the park on a regular basis and is less concerned about the personal risk of being there and more concerned about finding permanent shelter for campers.

"I don't feel a similar situation around safety" said York. "It speaks to the need for housing ... people are all wanting the same thing — access."