Press release: “We’re a family” – Residents and supporters respond to Vancouver Police Department statement about Oppenheimer Park
Unceded territory, September 20, 2019 –Residents, Indigenous community members,
grandmothers and supporters of Oppenheimer Park continue to state that they feel safer in community in the park then in isolated back alleys and isolated doorways, and to call on the Vancouver mayor, councilors and senior members of the Vancouver Police Department to have a conversation about what creates safety.
The VPD narrative is the latest effort to evict poor people from Oppenheimer Park without addressing the underlying issue of the collective failure of all levels of governments to ensure accessible, affordable housing, to acknowledge the homelessness crisis and housing emergency in the city of Vancouver and to allow park residents to have a say in decision-making about their own safety.
According to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing, Leilani Farha, “In order for the City’s actions to be compliant with human rights, the residents of Oppenheimer Park need to be meaningfully consulted and included in the development of any plans related to their living situations.”
“If they’re truly concerned about resident safety, why are they not sending a more senior
member to weekly safety meetings – instead of only sending a Staff Sergeant?” asks tent city liaison Chrissy Brett. “If I, as an Indigenous grandmother, can feel safe staying in the park, then why don’t they? This is just a bully mentality because the the VPD feel they have no control – they want an injunction because they are not in charge.”
The City of Vancouver has sought a jurisdictional takeover of Oppenheimer Park, saying that residents needed a “nudge” to leave and that the City cannot offer resources without taking jurisdictional control from the Park Board. But the City clear has the power to advocate for resources, supports, and life-saving health and safety measures such as funding for the Overdose Prevention Site in the park and funding for housing from upper levels of government even without jurisdictional authority.
“When I first came here, I didn’t have any friends or family. How they say Oppenheimer is the most violent – that’s bullshit. All this drama – they’re caging us out of Native land. They’re treating us like we’re not even human beings. Oppenheimer’s not a bad park. When kids are in there, we make sure it’s safe. We give food, water, clothes. We always stick together. We’re a family,” says Chris, park resident.
According to an August 2019 statement by Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, “A disproportionately high number of the vulnerable park residents facing the loss of a safe and stable living situation are Indigenous. Any move to forcefully evict them is callous and insensitive to the mental health, addictions, and poverty that they are battling as a result of an ongoing colonial legacy of systemic discrimination and oppression.”
“Oh my God, really?” says Nisga’a grandmother Erica Grant about the VPD safety concerns. “Everybody looks after each other here. I see no safety issues. People are living here. This is their home.”
“There is a proverb in this community – Nothing about us, without us,” says Indigenous activist Flora Munroe. “We’re never going to go away. We have a heart here that just beats with the earth. We will never go away. We will rise up.”
The VPD rely heavily on 911 calls and alleged crimes (they provide no conviction data) in
claiming Oppenheimer tent city is causing an increase in “street disorder”. Similar “evidence” has been cited with regard to other tent cities in municipal bids to evict residents. For example, Saanich PD made comparable claims regarding Camp Namegans on Vancouver Island in 2018 – in response, Jeffrey Shantz, Professor of Criminology, provided an expert opinion to the court which explained:
“There is no research-based evidence that tent cities create environments where residents are more likely to commit crime than if they were sheltering outside alone or in multiple smaller groups. It is my opinion that tent cities may decrease crime by providing environments where people can get more of their material and psychological needs met than if they are sheltering in isolation.”
Shantz also explained that the number of phone calls to an area does not equate to the number of crimes. “There is no evidence-based research to support the conclusion that an increase in calls for service is necessarily the result of a respective increase in crime… and may in fact be the result of increased police activity or media amplification.”
In addition, a recent study by the BC Centre on Substance Use and the University of British Columbia showed that policing practices in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside are creating barriers for people wanting to access overdose prevention sites. The VPD claims they support the “four pillars” approach to substance use, but all they have discussed is enforcement. Where is their commitment to prevention, treatment and harm reduction? How will evicting Oppenheimer serve these other needs?
The 24-hour, fully volunteer-run, Vancouver Coastal health-sanctioned Overdose Prevention Site at Oppenheimer Park serves over 100 community members every day and is the only 24-hour OPS in the neighbourhood. The site provides triaging of health and safety as well as harm reduction for those staying at the park and is a beacon of light for others in the neighbourhood when other services are closed.
Residents and activists support the call from Vancouver Park Board for a Joint Task Force,
which would be the appropriate place for high level officials from VFD, VCH, BCH, VPD, the City, Parks, and Parks Board to come together and discuss comprehensive safety.
Residents and activists also continue to amplify the call for immediate supports in the park including peer support, electricity and funding for the Overdose Prevention Site, community kitchen facilities, improved sanitation facilities, a warming tent and storage. In the longer term, residents and activists are calling on all three levels of government to:
· Provide new housing options for Oppenheimer park residents, and/or buy or lease one or
more hotels while ensuring appropriate housing for women and for indigenous women and
children, until proper housing can be built.
· Secure land and government funding for modular homes, social and co-op housing to
drastically reduce homelessness in Vancouver
Liaison at Oppenheimer Tent City
Fiona York, Coordinator and Administrator
Carnegie Community Action Project
Peer Researcher, CCAP, Right To Remain
Vandu, Our Homes Can’t Wait
Media ethics: please remember that for many people, a tent is a home, and be respectful when approaching people living in the park.
Long considered a safe place and social justice zone, Oppenheimer Park has a long history for Indigenous people. “From time immemorial, this area was a gathering place for Aboriginal people, a place to hunt and gather and meet others. First Nations people who felt unwelcome in Stanley Park after its founding in 1887 made this park “their home” (Heart of the City Festival). It is the only park designated by the Parks Board as a site for free speech in that decade of marches, sit-ins, and mass demonstrations.
There are well over 2223 homeless people in the City of Vancouver. Most have no access to daytime shelter, and at least 600 people have zero overnight shelter options. Tent cities like Oppenheimer provide safety in community. At Oppenheimer Park, residents can access a VCH sanctioned, peer-run Overdose Prevention Site, basic sanitation services, some food security and peer support. Tent cities are often considered “harm reduction zones” in the midst of housing crises, as they reduce exposure to external violence and the elements and provide basic necessities and a community of peers.
Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms recognizes that “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.”
As of September 19, there were 117 tents in the park.