People in the park Monday morning said there was a heavy police presence on site keeping the peace, along with staff from the park board and fire department.
Candice Bryar has no idea where she will sleep next week.
Bryar has been homeless for a month, staying most recently in Oppenheimer Park’s tent city, where she and more than 100 fellow residents were served with an eviction notice on Monday.
The Vancouver park board issued a notice Monday morning telling park residents they were in breach of city bylaws and ordering them to remove all tents by Wednesday evening.
Outreach workers were in the park Monday offering residents lodging in one of more than 100 vacant social housing units identified by B.C. Housing. City officials expressed hope those vacancies would be enough to house everyone in the park who has been looking for a home
For some residents, eager to move out of a tent, this was welcome news.
But others, including Bryar, still hadn’t been offered housing on Monday. Bryar, who needs crutches to walk after developing an infection in her leg, said she’s not optimistic she’ll be able to find suitable, accessible social housing soon.
“If something actually goes my way here, I will be shocked,” Bryar said as she sat in the park. “The 30 seconds in the morning where you wake up and forget about all this is the best part of the day. And that sucks.”
Many worry the spaces identified by B.C. Housing won’t house every resident of the tent city, which has grown considerably in recent months.
Other residents, saying they find the tent city cleaner and safer than some of Vancouver’s single-room-occupancy housing, say they plan to stay.
Marco Tynakou said he doesn’t want to leave his home in the park for an SRO, where he says he’s previously been robbed. Those SROs, Tynakou said, “are not houses, they’re prisons.”
Monday’s order was issued because of safety risks, the city statement said, citing 17 fires in the park since February. Vancouver police spokesman Const. Steve Addison said Monday there have been 21 violent incidents in and around the park in the past week.
Hector Bravo, who has lived in the park for three months with his girlfriend, said Monday he was excited to move to social housing this week. He was recently assaulted in the park, he said, and robbed at gunpoint.
“My girlfriend couldn’t sleep for a couple days after that,” Bravo said.
Tents in Oppenheimer Park are not new, but this summer has seen the growth of a particularly large encampment there, starting with a high number of residents living there through the snowy winter months.
In recent days, there has been “a surge of new people camping at the park,” B.C. Housing’s director of operations, Brenda Prosken, said Monday.
All the 100-plus vacant social housing units identified by B.C. Housing are managed by “experienced non-profits who provide 24/7 support services,” Prosken said, adding that people with drug and alcohol issues “will be welcomed at these units and provided with supports that are appropriate to each person’s needs, such as health services provided by Vancouver Coastal Health.”
Atira Women’s Resource Society is also providing women-only social housing units, Prosken said, and some of the available units are wheelchair accessible. Atira CEO Janice Abbott said the society has been providing temporary space recently at its women-only buildings near Oppenheimer, “for women who for a variety of reasons feel unsafe at Oppenheimer or are at risk there.”
B.C. Housing, in a statement, said it allocates housing based on specific needs. Some local housing organizations, like Atira, say they never refuse shelter to people in crisis.
But advocates say there is confusion around who will receive housing and where it will be.
“There are a lot of people that no housing provider has come and talked to,” said Erica Grant, a mental health peer researcher with the Carnegie Community Action Project. “And they’re wondering, what’s happening? What about me?”
In the first two hours after outreach staff arrived in the park Monday morning, more than a dozen campers had already accepted placements in social housing, Vancouver’s deputy city manager Paul Mochrie said. “Many of those people are really anxious to get into housing.”
But the homelessness crisis “isn’t limited to Oppenheimer, by any means,” Mochrie said. “We do have folks living on the streets, whether it’s in tents or other circumstances, really, across the city, and the action that we’re taking right now in Oppenheimer really isn’t solving any of that. … There’s a much broader crisis obviously.”
Before Monday’s notice, outreach staff from the city, non-profit housing providers and B.C. Housing had already been “actively assessing the housing needs of people camping at Oppenheimer Park and have been offering supportive housing units for months now,” B.C. Housing spokeswoman Laura Mathews said in an emailed statement Friday. She said B.C. Housing had moved 35 people into social housing units around Vancouver since the beginning of June.
B.C. Housing and the city had expedited renovations on vacant units in need of repair, she said. The tally of 100-plus vacant does not include shelter spaces and some city shelters aren’t full over the summer.
Union Gospel Mission was also planning to open extra emergency shelter spaces, if necessary, to house Oppenheimer residents as they look to transition to longer-term housing, said UGM spokesman Jeremy Hunka.
Coun. Jean Swanson, a longtime advocate for the homeless, said Oppenheimer is a small part of a much bigger problem, pointing to this year’s homeless count, which identified 2,223 Vancouver residents without a home, the highest number ever.
Standing in Oppenheimer Park, Swanson said: “Even if everybody here got a mansion, there’d still be 2,000 more homeless people in this city.”
It remained unclear, however, what will happen to any Oppenheimer residents who refuse to take down their tents and leave.
When asked, Mochrie said he was “not able to comment on what actions might be taken” beyond Wednesday’s deadline.
Fiona York, a co-ordinator with the Carnegie Community Action Project, said advocates plan to remain in the park regardless of the eviction notice in solidarity with residents.
In 2014, the last time Oppenheimer Park held a tent city approaching this size, the city obtained an injunction to clear the park.
Asked Monday if the city might consider seeking a court injunction after Wednesday’s deadline passes, Mayor Kennedy Stewart did not answer directly, but, in a written statement, said: “My immediate priority is and remains the safety of people in the park and our staff.”
“I am hopeful that people will transition to housing over the next few days,” Stewart said. “My job is to keep working hard every day to convince senior levels of government to help us build the housing we need so that encampments like this don’t keep happening. It’s quite simple, we need housing. That’s the solution.”
— With files from Scott Brown