The campers at Oppenheimer Park, their advocates and the barriers facing the city’s homeless population

Vancouver is set to mark a sombre anniversary as the city’s longest running tent city at Oppenheimer Park turns one year old this August.

Activity at the encampment has doubled in size in the past month—acting as a refuge and community for some of Vancouver’s homeless population of 2,223, with 614 of those living without shelter.

The recent closure of SROs in the Downtown East Side may help explain why Oppenheimer Park is seeing its highest activity yet. The tent city is not only shining a spotlight on the struggles facing campers, activists and city officials—it’s also showcasing the varying solutions to Vancouver’s growing homelessness crisis. 

While many seem to agree that one solution is to build more social housing, where that funding comes from, and how to support the homeless in the interim is exacerbating tensions between these groups. 

It may be warm in Vancouver now, but Mayor Kennedy Stewart worries that the city won’t be able to secure more federal funding for social housing before winter further threatens the health and safety of Oppenheimer Park’s campers.

“We have been in negotiations with the federal government since January, but I’m nervous with the election coming up that deals like you’ve been seeing in Toronto we may not achieve here,” says Kennedy.

While many seem to agree that one solution is to build more social housing, where that funding comes from, and how to support the homeless in the interim is exacerbating tensions between these groups. 

Since 2015, Vacouver has received $19-million dollars in housing grants from Ottawa, compared to the $1.3-billion Toronto has seen. COPE Councillor Jean Swanson pointed to this disparity at a recent press conference at Oppenheimer Park, while calling on provincial and municipal levels of government to put aside more money to house the homeless. 

“SRO hotels are not the solution. Tent cities are not the solution. Earlier this year I put forward a motion that called for helping people in tent cities out of desperation, but a rich city should not be acting out of desperation.”

Between the $78-million allocated in Vancouver’s Capital Plan and $30-million from its Empty Homes Tax, Swanson believes that a partnership between all levels of government could see housing built for every homeless person in this city. 

While waiting for that collaboration to be actualized, advocates for the campers argue that the city needs to follow through on the actions outlined in Swanson’s ‘desperate’ motion, which council passed in March. 

Four months later, the coalition Our Homes Can’t Wait hosted a sleepover at City Hall, where dozens showed up to demand that the city provide essential services, organize peer support and combat the pressure facing campers to withdraw from their home. 

“The city said that they’d provide washrooms, a warming tent of sorts and storage so that people wouldn't continue to lose belongings,” says Fiona York, a coordinator with the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP), who attended the sleepover. 

While porta potties have been put in the park since the motion was passed, York says that doesn’t truly follow the spirit of the proposal— to support hygienic improvements. She adds that the city further exacerbated the lack of resources available to campers by closing the Oppenheimer field house.  

CCAP has documented over 20 incidents of racism and abuse from VPD towards tent city residents. As recently as July 25, approximately 30-40 police, fire and city staff raided Oppenheimer Park. Videos of the sweep have been widely shared on social media, showing officials entering tents without consent, taking campers belongings--including mobility items--and anything deemed a fire risk. But it was only on the same day that fire extinguishers were first provided to Oppenheimer residents.

“We are trying to co-exist with the city of Vancouver and they are making life extremely difficult for us,” says camper Steve Robinson. The 51-year-old is handicapped, has a hip replacement and has been living in the park for months. “It’s the best bunch of tents I’ve lived around, but it’s not very fun.”

This isn’t Oppenheimer Park’s first tent city. Back in 2014, homeless advocate Brody Williams spearheaded support for the people camping there. 

“Back then, I saw the park board handing out notices to campers, and I called some of my friends and we started showing support for the homeless,” says Williams, who has lived in the community for 30 years but hasn’t been homeless in over a decade. 

Williams says about seven dedicated volunteers were out feeding campers three times a day, hosting Inidigenous healing circles and collecting donations to support the health and safety of the campers. After three months, and a lot of meetings with city officials, his team was able to secure housing for the campers, mostly through hotels.

While he’s not involved in the most recent tent city, Williams has still been pushing for the officials he previously worked with to buy three buildings on Jackson Avenue across from Oppenheimer Park that could serve as housing. 

“I don’t like to see anyone camp and one year is very long,” says Williams. “Basically if you move them anywhere but into housing, you’re just forcing them to squat in other parts of the city.” 

Theo Lamb works for the businesses surrounding Oppenheimer as the executive director of Strathcona’s Business Improvement Association (SBIA), and says the non-profit felt the impact of displacement this April, when the park was re-sodded and campers were removed.

“They set up their homes and tents right in front of businesses which sets up a cycle of displacement every 24-hours,” says Lamb. “That happens less when those tents are in a space like the park, people aren’t walking in and out of community retail or temporary encampments.”

To stop this cycle, Vancouver’s Powell Street Festival is relocating its annual August celebration for its 43rd year. 

“We always like to see organisations looking at their social impact in the community because that’s what we do,” says Lamb. “I hope from east to west in the city of Vancouver, everyone is taking a moment to think about the people who call this park home and the community--residents or retail.”

Over the last seven months, SBIA’s safety patrol team has logged 42 per cent of their time spent in the Downtown-Eastside/Oppenheimer District (DEOD) in response to calls from business members and activity requiring their support. That’s 2.63 times more than any other sub-district, and an 11 per cent increase from the previous year’s records. 

“I hope from east to west in the city of Vancouver, everyone is taking a moment to think about the people who call this park home and the community--residents or retail.”

Safety has been used as a rationale for displacement by city officials, and the recent shooting near Oppenheimer Park has revived those concerns. But Vancouver parks commissioner John Irwin has lived in the West End for years, and notes that plenty of shootings have happened in his neighbourhood. 

“These people want to be housed for their health and their safety too, and we’re actually wasting money with the current model,” Irwin says, citing a 2017 study for the Canadian Medical Association Journal that estimates each homeless person costs $56,000 annually. 

That means community organizer Babak Motamed has raised $7,000  through The Downtown Eastside Service Squad’s fundraisers of Facebook. The group has been using funds to support the volunteer work they’ve conducted every Sunday at Oppenheimer Park.

“We are super grateful to serve about 150 full meals and one coordinator has even come out to do hair cuts,” says Motamed. 

The group is regularly composed of at least a dozen active members, and while not all are from the Bahá’í Faith, their mandate follows the teachings of social activism, unity, and change in a grassroots spiritual way.

“We’re hoping to empower people through the opportunity to volunteer,” says Motamed, adding that the campers love them and often help with the set up and clean up. “Food is great, clothing is great, but the next step is to engage families in different communities and restaurants in the area as a gesture that we’re all one.”

Hopefully, this call for oneness as Vancouver’s longest running tent city turns one year old will be heard by those who can come together to house the homeless, as a warming tent could be deemed a fire hazard come winter.