Just before Vancouver was predicted to experience a cold snap, with temperatures dropping to minus-11 degrees, Vancouver Park Rangers and Vancouver Police Department officers descended on residents of Oppenheimer Park. They took personal belongings, including the only shelter residents had — their tents — and told them to move along. They can’t stay here, they were told.
With shelters regularly at capacity (and inquiries to the community resources phone line 211 confirm Oppenheimer residents could not be accommodated in shelters), where were people supposed to go?
The eviction began on Jan. 9 and continued the following day. On Jan. 10, residents were told that they had to pack down their tents, but could stay in the park. There weren’t any outreach workers or social workers present to help support residents or the process
Does any of this seem like it’s in good faith? Does any of this seem like it will actually help?
The city has an obsession with enforcement for enforcement’s sake. When did we as a city and society come to accept the weaponizing of bylaw enforcement as more important than literal survival? When there are no more shelter beds and items like tents and sleeping bags are taken and trashed, how does the city expect people to survive? How do they think this helps or solves homelessness? This behaviour frankly leads us to believe that they are more preoccupied with hiding homelessness than solving it.
Encampments are a highly contentious issue. In late 2023 we saw strong opposition from all sides when the B.C. government tabled new legislation, Bill 45, for municipalities to enforce bylaws around encampments. Municipalities thought it too vague and difficult to evict residents of encampments; advocates criticized the disregard for human rights.
We’re in full support of encampments when shelter alternatives aren’t available: They provide community, access to services, and reduce risk of death by overdose. Dismantling an encampment doesn’t suddenly mean that residents become housed. It means residents are still forced to shelter outdoors, but they are alone and their health and lives are at far higher risk.
Let’s be clear: Encampments are not a solution to homelessness. Sheltering outdoors in a thin tent in wet conditions and sub-zero temperatures is not what we’re calling for as a solution. Encampments provide the best protection when folks have nowhere else to go, but they are not an end goal. We need permanent, affordable, and safe housing.
Until there is an adequate supply of affordable housing that meets the needs of all our neighbours, we implore the city to stop bullying unhoused people out of the only safe spaces they have.
The few hours we spent outside while witnessing the Park Ranger and VPD’s actions on Jan. 10 left us frigid — even with thick coats, gloves and boots on. The cold bit through every layer and we had to keep moving to try to maintain some level of warmth. It’s about to get a whole lot colder, and a lot of people are suddenly without tents, blankets, and sleeping bags.
We ask again: How does hiding homelessness help?
Katie Koncan is director of development and communications and Amanda Burrows is executive-director at First United Church.