Peers, parks and safety: residents, advocates and UN Rapporteur on Affordable Housing weigh in on peer support and harm reduction in Oppenheimer Park

Unceded territories, February 4, 2020 — Peer support, health care, heat and sanitation are essential to supporting people living in Oppenheimer Park in the absence of safe, affordable and dignified housing. Residents and advocates of Oppenheimer tent city welcome the Vancouver Park Board’s decision to engage a third-party agency to facilitate peer workers and other resources in order to address the immediate needs of park residents.

BC Housing has stated that there is no new housing for homeless people living in Oppenheimer Park, especially in the context of a city-wide homelessness crisis and a province-wide affordable housing shortage. Without adequate housing, tent cities become a harm reduction zone and safety net for the vulnerable — and should be provided with the resources and services to function as such.

Freezing waitlists is not the answer. This bypasses established systems identifying those who need to be housed first. Furthermore, the City’s existing “Winter Response Strategy” is completely inadequate to meet unsheltered people’s needs.

Leilani Farha, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, states:

“Local, provincial and federal governments are obliged under international human rights law to ensure that the right to housing is realized for everyone, including for those living in tent encampments. No one wants to see people in one of the richest countries in the world, living in tents. But given that these residents have no other reasonable choice, governments must respond compassionately and in keeping with their human rights obligations. This means ensuring their conditions are adequate. It is increasingly clear to me that Canada needs a national human rights based protocol on tent encampments.”

Residents and advocates have been calling for funding for peer engagement since last winter. Chrissy Brett, tent city resident and liaison, says “Peers have been providing essential life-saving services in the 24-hour Overdose Prevention Site in the park since last July, completely uncompensated. Any measure that facilitates peer support and provides services that directly address the true risks of homelessness as identified repeatedly by those living in the park, is welcome.”

motion passed by City hall last March called for peers, storage and warming tents for the park. An unsanctioned warming tent has been established, but residents continue to request a warming tent sanctioned by Park Board and VFRS. 

“The right to housing is deeply connected to the right to life. Forcing people to live in sub-zero temperatures is a clear human rights violation. Instructing tent encampment residents that they can find warmth in shelters that are unsafe and unhygienic is not a solution. The City of Vancouver has human rights obligations which includes ensuring encampment residents have access to basic services including heat in the winter. Lives are at risk – that should be enough motivation to provide heaters to this population.”

“People living in homelessness die every winter in Toronto. In fact, recently a memorial in Toronto marked the 1000th death of a homeless person. If Vancouver is experiencing abnormally low temperatures this winter season, the consequences for those living in homelessness or housing vulnerability are dire. Heating devices must be made available to those residing in Oppenheimer Park to preserve human life.”  — Leilani Farha

Friends and neighbours join Oppenheimer Park residents is wishing for better conditions and a positive outcome for residents of the park, with appropriate and dignified supports.

“They always promise, promise promise [housing],” says Karen, a neighbour. “I don’t think they should move until there’s housing. I live in the neighbourhood about a block away. I feel safer in the park then in my own building right now. I’d rather pitch a tent in Oppenheimer park. They’re human beings, not animals. You get more love from them than you do anywhere else.”

Oppenheimer Park is on the unceded and occupied Coast Salish territory, which includes the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səl̓ilwətaɁɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) nations.

Media Contacts

Chrissy Brett
Liaison at Oppenheimer Tent City

Fiona York, Coordinator and Administrator
Carnegie Community Action Project

Media ethics: please remember that for many people, a tent is a home, and be respectful when approaching people living in the park.


According to the 2016 BC Coroners Report on Deaths of Homeless Individuals, drug/alcohol poisoning is the #1 cause of death, followed by motor vehicle accidents and exposure to cold. Deaths from cold are severely underestimated as the Coroners Report does not include deaths while “under the care of a physician”.

Approximately 80% of park residents are Indigenous. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, stated in August 2019: “A disproportionately high number of the vulnerable park residents facing the loss of a safe and stable living situation are Indigenous.

“The City of Vancouver stands to violate the basic rights of Indigenous peoples articulated in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, as well as blatantly ignore the call for safe housing that is appropriate to the cultural and economic needs of Indigenous peoples set out in the National Inquiry’s Calls for Justice.”

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.

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.”A

Fiona York
CCAP Coordinator and Administrator | 604-665-2105 | Carnegie Community Centre, 401 Main Street, Vancouver, BC V6A 2T7 Unceded Coast Salish Territories

The Carnegie Community Action Project is a project of the board of the Carnegie Community Centre Association. CCAP works mostly on housing, income, and land use issues in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver so that the area can remain a low income friendly community.