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City resorts to its old anti-homeless tactic of closing Oppenheimer Park washrooms

November 7, 2019

Three of the 80-plus tents that I counted in Oppenheimer Park on September 3.

Tuesday evening (November 5) the City of Vancouver suddenly blocked overnight access to the only washrooms in Oppenheimer Park.

The otherwise homeless people living in the Downtown Eastside park have been forced to occupy the washrooms in an attempt to keep them open.

A November 6 email news release from the Carnegie Community Action Project outlined the previous day’s sudden closure of the washrooms and indicated that city-employed security was again trying to close the washrooms, as of 2:13 p.m.

“The washrooms were closed at 5 pm on November 5, apparently by order of city staff, and opened about 1:30 pm. Security have now arrived to close them again. Activists are occupying the washrooms so that they remain open.”

“We’re sick and tired of these games that city hall is playing,” the news release quotes tent city liaison Chrissy Brett as saying.

“These games are impacting the lives of 150 people and adding additional stresses and pressures on already vulnerable people,” a clearly exasperated Brett adds.

The park board has since blamed the washroom closures on a sewage backup but as homeless activists know this is a familiar tactic that has been used against previous homeless encampments at Oppenheimer Park.

History of harassing homeless camps repeats itself

Closing washrooms and blocking access to safe sanitation options is just another page from the City of Vancouver’s established playbook for pressuring so-called illegal tent cities on city property—as shown by a five-year-old news story titled: “Oppenheimer Park campers plan to occupy public washrooms to prevent nightly lock-up“.

That story, from July 2014, explains how homeless camp occupants in Oppenheimer Park that summer were likewise driven to occupy the park washrooms, in an effort to stop the park board from locking them at 4:30 p.m. each day.

The 2014 story ends with mention of how campers and homeless advocates attended a city council meeting to plead (unsuccessfully) against eviction from the park, which they explained was far better than the alternative SRO hotel rooms—so often infested with mice and bedbugs.

Five years later, little has changed. Homeless campers in Oppenheimer Park are being treated to the same shitty pressure tactics and largely being offered the same shitty SRO housing.

A band-aid housing solution with a touch of duct tape

Screen capture of provided video showing part of the colour-coded list of social housing that up to 98 Oppenheimer Park campers were moved to August 26.

In the third week of August a small army of city and provincial workers—together with moving company contractors—swooped into Oppenheimer Park.

At the time it was reported throughout the Vancouver media that B.C. Housing had rustled up 140 units of housing for campers in the park.

On October 30, tent city liaison Chrissy Brett (then briefly relocated to a kind of “Oppenheimer West” camp on the grounds of City Hall), explained to me that—as she understood—the actual composition of housing offered in August was 98 SRO units and 40 shelter beds.

To stockpile those units B.C. Housing resorted to a so-called unit freeze.

This essentially involved blocking other homeless people from receiving units in a certain number of social housing complexes for a certain number of months. Apparently a process of tenant attrition was then allowed to produce empty units.

By depriving housing to an unknown group of people outside the public spotlight, B.C. Housing was able to offer housing to perhaps half of the estimated 200 Oppenheimer Park campers who were in the spotlight. Plus, shelter beds were offered to nearly a quarter of the remainder.

According to Brett, B.C. Housing’s unit freeze began in January, eight month prior to the housing being offered in August.

Moving homeless people around is down to a science

Sources who helped to pack up and move Oppenheimer Park campers in August explained to me how a well-developed system, involving different colours of duct tape, was used to direct moving boxes to certain of 27 social housing complexes on a colour-coded list.

I was provided with a copy of this list and have edited it for both spelling and to include the operators:

  • Red: Alexander Street Community, Chartrand Place, M. Mitchell Place, Nora Hendrix Place, Hummingbird Place and Woodwards Community Housing—all operated by PHS.
  • Purple: The Biltmore (Rain City), First Place (Lookout Society) and Larwill Place TMH (MPA Society).
  • Pink: Hotel Maple (PHS), Molson Bank Building (PHS), Hotel Irving (PHS), Beacon Hotel (PHS), Jubilee Rooms on Main (Rain City), London Hotel (Atira), Savoy Hotel (Provincial Rental Housing Corporation) and all City of Vancouver site (“including the Avalon Hotel and Metropole”).
  • Blue: Flint, Carl Rooms and Hazelwood.
  • Green: Gastown, Winters, Hotel Canada, St. Helens, Arco and Hutchinson.

As Chrissy Brett indicated, the list of housing offered to the Oppenheimer Park camps is heavy on SROs but also includes newer social housing, including temporary modular complexes.

After moving all of the people into housing who could be, there were still probably over a hundred left trying to make a home for themselves in Oppenheimer Park.

In a notable aside, I was told that moving company staffers recognized a number of Oppenheimer Park campers whom they had previously helped move out of the Balmoral and Regent, after those two, dangerously run-down SRO hotels (and their combined 293 units of lowest-income housing) were closed by order of the city in 2017 and 2018 respectively.

Wednesday (November 7) Vancouver City Council finally voted to expropriate the two derelict Downtown Eastside buildings for a dollar each.

Mayor needs to match his words with deeds—housing deeds

Say what he wants, Mayor Stewart can only “nudge” campers in Oppenheimer Park back onto downtown streets, such as North Granville, where I saw this homeless person, on September 3.

When Mayor Kennedy Stewart blithely told the media on September 4 that some of the “folks” living in Openheimer Park “may need a little nudge to move ahead”, the media lowballed the number of people left living in the park as only 40.

but the day before, I had counted over 80 tents and five days later, on September 9, Chrissy Brett told me that the tent count in the park was something like 97.

When Brett told me this, she and a few others were in the middle of a two day campout on the grounds of City Hall, as a way to tell the mayor that the “folks” in Oppenheimer Park had felt his “nudge”, if not his compassion, or understanding.

Housing choices are as poor as the folks living in the park

Chrissy Brett flanked by a a sign reading “BUILD HOMES NOW”, at the short-lived “Oppenheimer West” camp on the grounds of City Hall, September 10.

Beyond his bluster and indignation, mayor Stewart had (and has) little to offer those still camping in Oppenheimer Park, beyond overnight shelter beds, as the Vancouver Courier indicated in September.

It is beyond my understanding how Stewart can imagine that overnight shelter beds—with all the uncertainty that goes with them—offer any kind of improvement over living in a tent community.

It is important, I think, to point out one of the main reasons why the Oppenheimer Park camp exists in the first place.

Over the last 50-plus years, governance of the city and province have allowed—and, in fact encouraged—the downtown stock of below market rental housing to be gradually decimated—from literally tens of thousands of units in the 1970s, to probably less than 2,000 today.

As if erasing the unsightly poverty housing could erase the unsightly poor.

Now that the majority of Vancouver’s old downtown “welfare housing” has been gentrified, or otherwise eliminated, no one should be surprised to see homeless people taking matters into their own hands and attempting to safely house themselves in a Downtown Eastside park.

Almost the only thing that the city has to offer these homeless Vancouver residents is this park where they have pitched tents for the mutual safety that community can offer.

Yanking even that out from under them—as mayor Stewart is obviously bound and determined to do—strikes me as an especially callous and dispiriting example of kicking people while they are down and out.

Stewart is guilty of criminalizing homeless people

One more example, seen September 3 on north Granville, of how the mayor apparently believes street people should live, namely on streets and not in parks.

As a homeless person I try to remember that underneath all the individual kindnesses, Vancouver is a sort of business that—if management isn’t careful—tends to be the least interested in serving those who have the least ability to pay.

Strictly speaking, being homeless means not having the ability to pay—first and foremost for a property that you have a legal right to occupy.

Almost any attempt by a homeless person to occupy space that they do not pay for can be treated as a criminal act.

This is what Kennedy Stewart is doing. He has chosen to treat homeless people as criminals because—for reasons of both poverty and insecurity—they cannot afford to live anywhere in Vancouver besides a public park.

For several months now the mayor of Vancouver and his police department have been working hard to portray the homeless people in Oppenheimer Park as little more than a criminal gang that is guilty—at least in the court of public opinion—of the heinous crime of gross occupancy.

A case in point was the September 19 press release issued by the Vancouver Police Department (VPD), wherein the department renewed its “concern about safety in Oppenheimer Park and the Downtown Eastside”.

The release included a paragraph designed to be picked up (as it was) by the city’s major new media outlets:

“So far, this year, police have seized 453 firearms in four different districts of the city. Forty-nine per cent (223) of those have been in ‘district two’ alone, which includes Oppenheimer Park and the Downtown Eastside.”

Nothing in the release says that even a single firearm was seized in the park. It is a classic smear tactic relying on guilt by association.

The VPD’s September 19 claim that a total of 453 firearms had been seized in Vancouver up until August appeared to sharply contradict a statement made less then a month earlier.

On August 23, police spokesman Const. Steve Addison was quoted by the Vancouver Sun to the effect that the VPD had seized something over 150 firearms up to August 2019.

When pressed repeatedly, the VPD was at a lost to explain the incredible discrepancy between the two statistics, saying that Constable Addison was away from the office and could not be reached.

The officer has apparently still not been located and I have been tempted to file a missing persons report with his department.

Focus should be on protecting people not property

Now that push is literally coming to shove we can see that there is nothing remotely progressive about mayor Stewart’s attitude toward the homeless people in the park.

In choosing to treat their poverty-driven civil disobedience simply as an unlawful disturbance that needs to quelled, Stewart is every bit as reactionary as any previous mayor of Vancouver.

For their part, the homeless people occupying Oppenheimer Park may as well be Gerry McGeer’s unruly Depression-era labour camp strikers, or Tom Campbell’s loitering hippies during the Summer of Love.

Like his mayoral predecessors, Kennedy Stewart seems to be itching to read his unruly homeless lawbreakers the Riot Act.

Poor people trying to stand up for themselves can have that effect on mayors of Vancouver. Click the images to enlarge them.

7 Comments
  1. Ifts odd , in a way I was born and raised in Vancouver, worked all my life and never could afford to live in Vancouver. .Now the city of Surrey has decided no living in your RV. I know of a few people that have adopted the van dweller stuff. None of this is to diminish living on the street. Given the choice of a tent in a park or the Grand Union/ New World/ or any SRO I would pick the tent.
    Its interesting to read your perspective on Vancouver and its Mayor. You paint a picture that isnt at all like the one I get following TV and radio news stories and discussions.
    In my early 20s 1974 -1986 I worked at CP Transport corner of Abbot and Pender. The dtes was a much kinder gentler place.once upon a time.

    Like

    • When I hitchiked here in 1980 I spent my first few nights huddled in a room at the Europe Hotel, with a crowd of French-Canadians. Residents could be heard back then complaining about the DTES — and it was run-down and gritty — but it was also fun and interesting and still a part of the everyday life of the city. Woodwards was widely acknowledged to be the best department store in Vancouver by a wide margin.

      I came to know a lot of old-timers living in the SROs — former forestry workers, many of them and fisherman. All are gone, as are the many SRO hotels that they coukd afford to live in on their meager pensions and/or welfare/CPP.

      I am mindful that had there not been all those SRO units still, 1980s Vancouver would’ve almost certainly seen the 2010’s level of homelessness.

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  2. Without a doubt Woodwards was the best department store to ever operate in Vancouver. The food floor was awesome.Woodwards and The Lotus Hotel both cashed CP Transport pay checks. At 21 years of age I enjoyed the bars close to work. The Lotus had a pub a lounge and a late nite ‘disco” that served until 3am. (work started at 630). The other bar that we patronized was the Grand Union.
    Diner at the Only or the Marco Polo was a weekly treat. Back then it felt safe to wander Hastings or Main Sts drinking in the Drake, Mars, #5, Sunrise. Your right about the retired fishermen, loggers etc.
    For the most part it was a fun safe place to be.
    Expo 86 seemed to be the beginning of the end for the dtes.

    Like

    • My very first visit to the Only was at the behest of a an old logger I knew, who lived in a three-storey sliver of a rooming house on Richards. While he reminisced about Vancouver in the 1940s and 50s and how the clam chowder used to be a quarter a bowl, I had my first-ever salmon steak! I had to ask my logger friend why they were sprinkling salt on the floor — it was for the cockroaches, he explained. 🙂

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  3. LOL cockroaches!!!! Across the St from 44 W Pender was a coffee shop called the Two Jays.
    A few booths and the good old belly up to the bar counter. In a display case directly across from the counter were the “fresh” baked pies. The display was to high to see your delicious piece of pie when seated at the counter so they had a full length mirror angled so you could see the pies. Sadly it also afforded you a very good look at the cockroaches racing about the pies.

    Just around the corner on Abbot St was Lubiks Cafe. Smokes were $5 per carton and bacon and eggs were 75 cents.
    Thanks for the memories Stanley

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  4. Slowcrow permalink

    One curse of getting old……. When nothing changes, Or gets worse…. If folks who seem interested in this could, “just” maybe, go to YouTube search box and enter “ljm 7848″. Find his documentary that starts ” Are Sanctioned Homeless Camps……..”, its 22min, 32sec. It’s almost fun to watch….. THEN, if you wanted to feel somewhat empowered, download the PDF by googling, “Outreach Handbook Eugene’s Rest Stop & Car Camping Programs”. A whole different approach?! That government WANT citizens to help with the issues! Lots of FAQ too! Thanks for your works Stanley!

    Like

    • The staying power of the status quo is amazing! And keep in mind yung’uns, actually seeing, with your own eyes, how the more things change, the more they stay the same, is just one of the curses of getting old. So next time you see an elder person cursing, please cut them some slack.

      LJM’s “Homeless Solutions” video is especially good. Community-supported homeless encampments — or sturdier developments, such as Dignity Village — Portland, Oregon’s on-of-a-kind, homeless-governed transitional community — are an obvious step in the right direction that would be easy to take and would yield immediate benefits for the homeles people involved and society at large.

      However, I believe sanctioned campsites are also a step too far toward normalizing homelessness — at least for anyone with a vested interest in the existing status quo.

      Like

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