Vancouver councillor says city should consider buying hotels for the homeless

Sep 30 2019, 9:31 pm

The homeless encampment crisis at Oppenheimer Park in the Downtown Eastside now necessitates the City of Vancouver to consider buying or leasing hotel properties to house unsheltered campers, according to one city councillor.

City council is scheduled to deliberate councillor Jean Swanson’s motion Tuesday calling for an emergency homelessness task force that addresses the crisis, with hotels suggested as an option now that social housing units offered by BC Housing to Oppenheimer Park campers are all taken.

Swanson also wants city staff to work with stakeholders and campers to identify an alternate camp site that offers health, safety, and access to services and supports, such as a community kitchen, electricity, funding for peer support, storage facilities, 24-hour sanitation and running water, and a warming tent in the park or other indoor site near the Downtown Eastside.

Additionally, she says the city should secure land and senior government funding for more modular homes, and social and co-op housing, but these structures would not be ready for the coming winter as they could take months or even years to achieve even if funding is found.

“Many people staying in the park state that it is safer than staying alone on the street or in an alley,” reads her motion.

“Many people state that they prefer to stay in the park than in a shelter that is not safe and is not able to meet the needs of campers with partners, pets or belongings. Most residents are living with makeshift shelters, lack of proper nutrition, no storage facilities, and no formal source of heat.”

An on-site volunteer-operated overdose prevention site, without supporting infrastructure and electricity, currently serves over 100 people per day, she says.

According to an update last week by city officials, over 100 tents with about 60 residents remain at the park. To date, about 120 campers have accepted housing elsewhere.

In a separate motion addressing Oppenheimer Park on Tuesday, councillors Michael Wiebe and Lisa Dominato want mayor Kennedy Stewart to “write a follow up letter” to the park board to express “council’s collective hope that theĀ current impasse at Oppenheimer Park, and the various health and safety issues evident in the park at the present time, can be resolved swiftly and respectfully for all concerned.”

For on-site interim measures, they want city staff and park board staff to explore providing facilities to the homeless, such as daily showers, washrooms, and other services that were also mentioned by Swanson.

As well, Wiebe and Dominato suggest city staff should seek immediate operating funding from the provincial government for a new low-barrier shelter that provides housing needs for the remaining Oppenheimer Park campers.

Both councillors also state city staff can take proactive action to develop an “urgent, collaborative development plan” for the park board for approval with the ultimate goal of restoring the park for actual park use.

These separate motions come after the park board’s decision last week to go against the expert advice of city staff, park board staff, the Vancouver Police Department, and Vancouver Fire Services to seek a court injunction to allow officials to enforce the rule of law and dismantle the Oppenheimer Park encampment.

Police and fire officials during the park board meeting expressed the deep safety concerns of their frontline staff in containing the encampment and dealing with the growing illicit activity. There has been violence, gang activity, and weapons discoveries, and earlier in the month there were three shootings in the area within the span of about 15 hours.

Over the first seven months of the year, from January 1 to July 31, according to figures provided by councillor Melissa De Genova, the encampment cost the city and park board $817,000, including $95,000 for engineering and sanitation, $200,000 for park ranger visitors and janitorial costs, $60,000 for fieldhouse staff, $240,000 for fire rescue staff, and $222,000 for policing.

Then between August 19 and 23, the city and park board saw $117,500 in additional operational costs from the park board’s decision to attempt to evict campers from the park, but this does not include policing, fire rescue, ambulance, Vancouver Coastal Health, and BC Housing costs.