Ongoing Oppenheimer decampment raises more concerns

An advocate for Vancouver’s unhoused population is raising concerns, with park rangers and police once again returning to Oppenheimer Park Monday as part of decampment efforts.

Sarah Blyth, who also heads up the Overdose Prevention Society in the Downtown Eastside, says the constant dismantling of tents and structures is getting old, and claims none it is being done properly.

She tells CityNews there were no outreach workers on site Monday, when at least six people were told to leave the park.

“They have to go from shelter to shelter and they don’t have internet on their phone. They don’t know where they’re going next, they don’t know which ones are open which ones aren’t,” Blyth explained.

“They need to have outreach workers walking people from place to place, or at least somehow making it known where the shelters are because I’m not hearing that, I’m hearing that there’s nowhere for people to go.”

She says shelter space is hard to find right now, making it even more critical for some sort of direction and support to be available for those who are being displaced.

“It’s a matter of making sure that there’s someone dedicated to helping people that are in the camp. Bring an outreach worker who has the paperwork for BC Housing or anything else to make sure they’re on a list. Do they have housing? Do they need housing? Drill down to what the actual issue of them getting housing is,” Blyth added.

Vancouver Park Rangers and VPD officers have been at Oppenheimer forcing people to move on several times a week for over the past month. Ongoing efforts have raised questions from some activists, who claim rangers have been enforcing bylaws in a seemingly arbitrary manner.

In many cases, activists say people’s items are confiscated and disposed of, with rangers claiming tents and other belonging are either “soiled” or contain drug paraphernalia.

CityNews reached out to the city on Monday for comment on the decampment of Oppenheimer Park. In a statement, a spokesperson for the Vancouver Park Board said the Outreach Services team visits Oppenheimer and other parks in the city “to ensure people sheltering outside are offered services.”

“Outreach teams intentionally work separately from, and not alongside, Park Rangers when they are enforcing a by-law. The role of outreach workers is client centered and intended to provide offers of support with accessing, shelter, housing and other supports an individual experiencing homelessness may require,” the statement reads.  

“While the Park Rangers may also be offering information, the work of seeking or encouraging compliance with the Park Control by-law is separate and distinct. As such, the two teams do not work alongside one another given that their primary focus is different.”

Meanwhile, in a recent interview with CityNews, Vancouver Park Board commissioner Jas Virdi said the board is “not equipped to deal with this issue.”

“This is a problem that’s a lot bigger than the Park Board and I think everyone’s just pushing this issue off to other people,” he said.

“I think the three levels of government really, really need to step up and we need to make housing for these people.”

Calling it a “complicated issue,” Virdi said there is no simple answer, stressing the importance of collaboration to resolve the matter.

Virdi notes the park rangers are also faced with a difficult situation.

“I just think they’re not equipped and it’s a tough situation that they’re in because these parks need to be accessible to the people of the public to use them. But, again, I do understand that some of these homeless people don’t have a place to go and I empathize with them. But, sheltering in a park, I don’t think is the solution for this,” he explained.

“It’s just not a place for people. We really, really need to work hard on opening more shelters and warming centres and getting people the right services they need. I think that’s the most important thing.”

Virdi would not directly answer why people shouldn’t be allowed to camp in the park in the absence of space or services.

-With files from Cole Schisler

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