Opinion: All levels of government need to do their job and finally fix Oppenheimer Park

Sep 25 2019, 5:01 pm

There are more than 100 tents set up again at Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Yup. The decision, or lack thereof, by the Green/Cope dominated Park Board to do nothing (except to send a strongly worded letter to other levels of government asking them to fix housing), is a non-solution to a big, big problem that does not fall within the Park Board’s mandate as set out in the Vancouver Charter.

So, instead of the Park Board enacting a court ordered injunction that would have seen these park land squatters move along (as has happened in the past — most recently in 2014), they let the encampment grow to more than 100 again (after staff had managed to find housing for 90% of those who were camping there before).

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart continues to be seriously ineffective on this issue.

If press briefings and statements translated to resolute action and a directive to get the Park Board to do its job, this would have been over long ago. The Mayor’s own police force (and let’s not forget, he is chair of its board) is stuck in the middle. They have stated that something has to be done before it’s too late. I’m not sure it’s not too late already — there have now been multiple shootings in the area, police have seized hundreds of weapons in the park itself, and have spoken about gangland influences at Oppenheimer Park proving that something more nefarious is going on in the DTES.

If too late equates to a life being lost in a public daylight shooting, then I’d go as far as to suggest we are playing actual Russian roulette. How is that acceptable?

Let’s face it, this ain’t about housing anymore. If you don’t believe that, how about this: at a press conference this week during the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) conference when asked what he might be able to do about the Oppenheimer Park situation, Premier John Horgan washed his hands of the issue saying it was not his responsibility to deal with people camping in a city park.

So clearly for the Premier of BC, this is not about housing because housing is HIS file. For those camping in the park, and who believe they are protesting the lack of housing, you may want to take note of the Premier’s stand on this: He’s not going to help you. 

At the time of this writing, there are two actions underway: NPA Vancouver Park Board Commissioners John Coupar and Tricia Barker have called an emergency meeting to pressure the Green/Cope alliance through a public meeting to rethink their reckless do-nothing decision. And at Council, a motion from an alliance between the NPA and Greens will be on the floor that is meant to put pressure on the Park Board to move forward with decampment. If neither of these approaches work, I would argue it’s time for the mayor to utilize whatever tools the city might have to decamp Oppenheimer Park (and I do believe that the Vancouver Police Department could simply move in and take the tents out (respectfully of course), perhaps using regulations pertaining to the limits on squatters rights.

What is most concerning is that most Vancouverites really don’t know the state of things at the Park or in the DTES because they never go there.

If you live in southeast or southwest Vancouver, it’s easy to avoid the area and the issue altogether. Nanaimo Mayor and former NDP MLA Leonord Krog drew attention to this at the UBCM Conference. He and other mayors from across the province called it “compassion fatigue.”

It’s true. People around BC, and especially in Vancouver, are tired of hearing about the state of things in the DTES. How many times have they heard the same thing over and over? Stories about homelessness, a mental health crisis, the opioid overdoses, and so on have bombarded them for years, and the result is, they are simply caring less. Changes in government, changes in funding, changes in attitudes, and yet nothing changes — if anything they are much, much worse. A lack of compassion means a lack of outcries, and if politicians respond to anything, it’s a good old fashioned outcry. 

So what to do?

Here’s a concept — each level of government needs to do its job. It’s a novel idea, I know, but here’s how it would break down:

Park Board: take care of our parks. Move the campers out, clean the playground up, cut the grass, hire more park rangers and move on from your attempted housing advocacy role. 

City of Vancouver: loosen up building codes, speed up the bureaucracy, and let the police do their job.

Province of BC: build permanent social and rental housing (the temporary modular housing you are funding is not a long term solution — obviously); the mental health institutions you closed down in the early ’90s (yes that was you, NDP) never really got replaced by any permanent programs or appropriate facilities — time to revisit those failed decisions; and please, stop downloading to cities and even charities, which is forcing them to do the hard stuff. 

Federal Government: increase funding to provinces for health care, build or encourage rental housing construction (i.e. GST exemptions on rental developments) and maybe even stop by the DTES sometime. I haven’t seen too many photo ops from those running for Prime Minister at Main and Hastings in this campaign – or actually ever. It would be wise to come up with some solutions on a federal level at the highest profile problem neighbourhood in Canada because – as Mayor Krog pointed out – Vancouver isn’t alone in this. Other cities are facing similar problems, although not of course on the same scale. But a templated plan could work in ALL communities.

So — in short — stop passing the buck in a kind of political circle jerk and do what is jurisdictionally embedded in the constitutional roles and responsibilities of each level of government.


George Affleck is a retired Vancouver city councillor, co-host of the podcast UnSpun with Jody Vance and George Affleck, and founder of Vancouver marketing firm Curve Communications. You can connect with him on Twitter at @george_affleck.