As the weather gets colder Oppenheimer Park residents are becoming increasingly worried about their health given the refusal of City staff and Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services to give them sanctioned warming options. We wrote two letters to explain why it was necessary that city officials work with camp residents to come up with a solution for a serious health and safety risk of park residents.
Vancouver is experiencing a colder than usual winter and with temperatures dropping well below freezing, city residents are forced to navigate heavy snowfall. With this cold snap, people living at Oppenheimer Park and others who rely on public space for shelter must contend with a multitude of competing health and safety risks. As City officials continue to deny basic health necessities like heat and power to Oppenheimer Tent City, keeping warm is becoming increasingly impossible.
We recently sent letters calling on both Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services (VFRS) and the City of Vancouver to “meet people where they are” and provide warming options for those who will inevitably remain outside in the cold this season. No one is claiming that tent cities are utopias, but they are a critical people-driven response to the housing and opioid crises. Displacement will not solve the (government-driven) housing shortage, and the City and Province have an obligation to ensure people’s basic needs are met.
Photo: Sozan Savehilaghi - Pivot Legal Society | Oppenheimer Park residents hit with heavy snowfall without on-site warming options.Read more
Health, Heat, and Homelessness: CCAP and Pivot respond to Park Board decampment plan for Oppenheimer Tent City amidst ongoing safety concerns
December 20, 2019 – International Human Solidarity Day
Unceded Territory of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations.
Photo Credit: Daily Hive | Oppenheimer Park | Retrieved Dec 10, 2019
10 days ago, Oppenheimer Park Tent City residents learned the Vancouver Park Board’s latest plans for decampment. At the final scheduled Park Board meeting of the year, Board Members voted on a motion that directed staff to work with partners to “further the voluntary decampment plan, supported by an injunction once conditions are met.” Two days after the announcement, a non-lethal shooting at the Park became a political pawn, wherein decisionmakers leveraged the incident to further the proposed decampment strategy.
Earlier that same week, a 20-person brawl broke out in Yaletown, which didn’t prompt a single call for the closure of Hamilton or Helmcken Streets.
Manipulating a Crime and Violence Narrative to Back Decampment
While a shooting is nothing short of terrifying, and we hope the survivor recovers quickly, this incident became a focal point in a debate embroiling Oppenheimer Park residents, advocates, municipal policymakers, and law enforcement. One article asked, “will someone have to die before the City of Vancouver acts to address an entrenched homeless camp in Oppenheimer Park?” The shooting, an aberration by all measures, took precedence over chronic safety issues that shape the everyday lives of people who rely on public space and live in the Tent City at Oppenheimer. The narrative of criminal activity and gun violence has been consistently used to skew public perceptions of park safety. Sensationalist narratives, largely originating within the ranks of the Vancouver Police Department, have been adopted uncritically, despite data analysis that contradicts the VPD’s fearmongering.
Gun violence remains an infinitesimal portion of the mortality risks faced by people who rely on public space. The BC Coroners Service reports that the overwhelming majority of deaths of homeless people are accidental, and of those, the vast majority are linked to drug and alcohol poisoning (refer to Table 1 and 2 below). Fundamentally, people are dying because of the colonial policies resulting in displacement, dislocation, and genocide of Indigenous peoples. People are dying because governments have failed to invest in long-term solutions to the housing crisis. People are dying because there is no Safe Supply.
We want to be clear – the dominant safety concerns at Oppenheimer are the tainted drug supply, zero safe tent-heating options, and the absence of adequate, affordable housing options.
We want to be clear – the dominant safety concerns at Oppenheimer are the tainted drug supply, zero safe tent-heating options, and the absence of adequate, affordable housing options. Unlike shootings, these concerns don’t generate outrage or moral panic, nor do they prompt any level of government to vote for decisive, meaningful policies. The Tent City at Oppenheimer cannot resolve these systemic issues, but in the absence of tangible change, it has become an irreplaceable site of harm reduction, community, and collective struggle.
Response to Decampment Plans
Over the years, Oppenheimer has been home to many Tent Cities. Most of these communities have been extinguished by city-mediated decampment efforts, typically involving court injunctions. These injunctions, paired with stigmatizing bylaws, have effectively trapped people who rely on public space in a compounding cycle of criminalization. We must ask: how many cycles of displacement will we go through before the government accepts that evicting people from public parks is a meaningless and expensive solution?
Photo Credit: Carnegie Community Action Project | CCAP members holding a banner that reads "WE CAN'T AFFORD POVERTY" | October 15, 2019
The recent Park Board motion authorizes staff to seek an injunction if “certain [unspecified] conditions” are met. The Park Board does not specify the conditions, nor does it elaborate about plans for a “third party to conduct an independent assessment of the current situation in Oppenheimer Park.” The Park Board press statement proclaims a commitment to principles of reconciliation and consultation, but without any clear mechanisms or accountability checks. For Oppenheimer residents, the announcement and plan for decampment came as a surprise. Residents have been meeting with the Parks Board and BC Housing for months.
The demand for safe, affordable, and permanent housing remains non-negotiable.
Since August, residents have been clear that the Park Board, City, Police, Fire, BC Housing, and social service staff must make decisions through collaboration with them. The demand for safe, affordable, and permanent housing remains non-negotiable. Decampment plans that rely on temporary shelters (including the Extreme Weather Response program or temporary shelters) are unproductive and fail to resolve systemic issues. Even the City of Vancouver’s Housing and Homelessness Strategy notes that “the uncertainty around opening and closure procedures for seasonal shelters each year creates challenges for everyone.” Collaboration between the City and BC Housing has also left Tent City residents skeptical. In the summer, news of the Supportive Housing Registry waitlist freeze broke, and residents learned that vacant units had been left sitting empty for months until BC housing had amassed a stock of 100 units. Freezing BC Housing units creates a bottleneck for anyone who needs emergency housing. The Supportive Housing Registry cannot be artificially inflated for the sole purpose of evicting park residents, as was attempted unsuccessfully in the summer.
Oppenheimer Tent City as a Site of Harm Reduction, Healthcare, and Peer Support
Amidst sensationalist headlines dominated by violence at the Park, local policymakers jockey to deploy the most “effective” responses to the Tent City. These effective responses are proposed while there has been a gradual – potentially fatal – withdrawal of essential hygiene, civic, and health services that were previously available in the park. Failure to support the basic, everyday needs of Tent City residents and lack of communication leaves Tent City residents scrambling for survival. It was bad enough in the summer, but now residents must also grapple with cold seasonal weather conditions that can cause or exacerbate chronic health issues – including hypothermia, pneumonia, trench foot, or complications from existing health conditions.
When Tent City residents attempt to heat their tents, they effectively violate the Fire Chief’s order and resort to so-called “dangerous measures.” The City’s solution? Residents should leave behind their belongings and community, and go to the local warming centre – which only opens “when it feels like 0 degrees.” Refusing to resource tent cities while imposing strict conditions on them foments a situation where residents are set up to fail, reifying the government’s justification for rapid decampment. Despite inadequate solutions and stigmatizing narratives, peers have continued to support Tent City residents, including regular Park inreach by the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society and DUDES Club.
It would be foolish to claim things don’t go wrong in the Park: yes, there are fires at Oppenheimer (and other Tent Cities). But when there is a fire, people respond; the same way people respond when there is an overdose. Residents respond because they know - this is a person, a friend, a companion, they help. Peers cannot respond when people are pushed into isolation, into corners where no one sees them when they are in distress. An Overdose Prevention Site has been operating in the Park since August, ensuring folks who use substances have access to a 24/7 peer-run safe consumption site. In the context of the continuing drug poisoning crisis, this fixed site enables witnessed consumption, provision of sterile gear, and access to peer support. These are vital interventions that ensure people who rely on public space are not using alone or in isolation.
Photo Credit: Carnegie Community Action Project | Overdose Prevention Site at Oppenheimer Park | August 28, 2019
Looking Back, Looking Ahead
As we close out this year and look back on the past few months, we commend the steadfast, principled advocacy of Oppenheimer Park Tent City residents. We stand in solidarity with the assertion of Indigenous sovereignty in the Park. As long as people must rely on public space, we must respect Tent Cities as the safest option in a list of undesirable alternatives. Current efforts to evicting Oppenheimer Park assuage the consciences of some housed constituents and housed policymakers’ paternalistic need to “do something.” There is, however, no evidence to indicate that a conditional injunction will make the community safer. Realistically, forced decampment and displacement from Oppenheimer Park will merely kick off the next cycle of dislocation, inevitably resulting in a tent city. Displacement is never the answer.
The only way to stop this cycle is to house people.
In solidarity with those living at Oppenheimer Park,
Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) & Pivot Legal Society
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
July 18, 2019
Vancouver, BC – On July 15, 2019, Justice Grauer released a ruling regarding Pivot Legal Society’s application to clarify his February 8, 2019 Order. The ruling is the latest in a series of Court decisions regarding the Anita Place tent city in the City of Maple Ridge.
The Ruling can be found here.
The Ruling amends the February 8 Order in favour of the residents of Anita Place; refutes the City’s contention that Pivot’s clients lack standing to bring the application; and instructs that the issue of constitutionality of the City’s actions were not within his jurisdiction at this time, but can be properly addressed in a future application.
The Ruling orders the City to provide Pivot with the list of 47 people who should be eligible to live at Anita Place. The City of Maple Ridge also consented and Justice Grauer agreed that people should be able to present themselves for verified residency on an ongoing basis. Furthermore, the ruling amended the Order to provide greater privacy protection for Anita Place residents.
Contrary to the City’s July 16, 2019 media release, the Court did not condone the City’s conduct in relation to the original Order. Justice Grauer made clear that a number of the City’s actions, including blocking visitors and searching residents at the gate, were not the intention of his Order.
Also contrary to the City’s media release, Justice Grauer did not recognize the City’s right to engage in these actions on other bases. Rather, the Court clarified the City may have this authority under the Trespass Act, but “whether, in doing so, it has breached any rights of the defendants or others who seek access to the St. Anne Lands is not a matter that comes within the scope of this application.”
The Court did not condone the City’s “priorities and approach” regarding Anita Place, and invited the parties to bring another application regarding the constitutionality of the City’s conduct.
The City of Maple Ridge continues to expend significant resources to weaponize the law in order to treat homeless people as second-class citizens and to displace residents of Anita Place. City officials and authorities continue to deny access to the Anita Place, the only accessible Overdose Prevention Site (OPS) in the City during one of the most fatal health crises we have faced.
The City has clearly demonstrated that it has the resources to support local homeless residents, but instead chooses to use those resources to police and stigmatize those who most need their help. The City’s actions multiply harm and resolve nothing, guaranteeing Maple Ridge will be stuck at the impasse of stigma and denial for the foreseeable future, while local homeless residents bear the consequences.
Anna Cooper, staff lawyer with Pivot Legal Society, will be available for comment.
Communications & Digital Engagement Manager
Pivot Legal Society
604-255-9700 Ext. 154
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Anita Place was founded in May 2017 by a group of residents in Maple Ridge, BC. That same month, the City filed an injunction application to close the camp but adjourned the hearing at the last minute after receiving extensive evidence from residents of Anita Place. In the fall of 2017, the City brought forward a second injunction application to disband the camp and evict its residents. The matter was settled by the signing of a Consent Order in which both parties agreed to work together to provide safety supplies to Anita Place residents. The City continues to leverage litigation against Anita Place residents in efforts to minimize the camp, despite failing to provide meaningful housing for residents who do not have other options.
About Pivot Legal Society
Pivot Legal Society is a leading Canadian human rights organization that uses the law to address the root causes of poverty and social exclusion in Canada. Pivot’s award-winning work includes challenging laws and policies that force people to the margins of society and keep them there. Since 2002 Pivot has won major victories for sex workers’ rights, police accountability, affordable housing, and health and drug policy.
Pivot Legal Society files appeal to BC Supreme Court Order after heavy-handed enforcement at Anita Place
For Immediate Release
February 25, 2019
Given the urgency of the situation, Pivot Legal Society is seeking to appear before the Court of Appeal on an expedited basis
Vancouver, BC – After witnessing the City of Maple Ridge’s aggressive, non-collaborative, and wrongful enforcement of Honourable Justice Grauer’s Supreme Court Order (the “Order”) pertaining to Anita Place tent city over the weekend, Pivot Legal Society has filed notice of leave to appeal the Order, which was issued February 8, 2019.
“We intend to appeal Justice Grauer’s Order on an expedited basis and inform the Court of the City and RCMP’s misconduct over the weekend, which included numerous and egregious contraventions of Justice Grauer’s decision,” said Caitlin Shane, staff lawyer with Pivot Legal Society. “The City refuses to collaborate and communicate with residents of Anita Place, despite their stated commitment to do so.”Read more
Pivot Legal Society seeks leave to appeal aspects of BC Supreme Court ruling on Anita Place. Encouraged by recognition of life safety concerns and the allowing of solid structures
For Immediate Release
February 8, 2019
Vancouver, BC – This morning, Justice Grauer of the BC Supreme Court released his decision on the City of Maple Ridge’s application for enforcement orders and injunctions at Anita Place tent city. In his decision, Justice Grauer underscored and affirmed the need for appropriate shelter for Maple Ridge’s homeless residents and agreed that adequate shelter is not, at present, available.
“A satisfactory answer to the problems raised on this application cannot be found in the courts,” he wrote, which underscores the obligation of local and regional governments to ensure the safety of its vulnerable residents. Indeed, Justice Grauer encouraged the City and the Province to “work together urgently to bring an end to the need for Anita Place”.Read more
Project Inclusion: "Conditions of release" are widely applied to people involved with the criminal justice system, but police- and court-imposed conditions have a particularly harmful effect on those who are homeless and people who use substances. Conditions fail to acknowledge the complexities of homelessness and substance use, and in so doing, trap people in a cycle of criminalization and actually produce criminality that undermines health and safety. [Read more]
For Immediate Release
January 15, 2019
(Photo credit: Peter Kim | Pivot lawyer Anna Cooper speaking to media | January 14, 2019)
Vancouver, BC – At BC Supreme Court this afternoon Pivot Legal Society and residents of Anita Place defended the rights and interests of communities affected by homelessness in BC by responding to the City of Maple Ridge’s application for enforcement orders and injunctions against Anita Place.
The City is seeking to enact unreasonable fire safety and solid structure regulations, resident identification policies, and a police enforcement order allowing officers to virtually indefinitely detain people believed to be “on reasonable and probable grounds” in violation of these orders.Read more
Pivot Legal and Anita Place respond to City of Maple Ridge’s Supreme Court Application on first day of winter
For Immediate Release
December 21, 2018
(Photo credit: Geoff Webb | Christmas at Anita Place | December 2017)
Maple Ridge, BC – As the coldest days of the year approach and families settle in for the holidays, the City of Maple Ridge is striving to break apart a community of homeless people living at Anita Place tent city by applying to the BC Supreme Court for an order that would effectively criminalize their efforts to survive. The order would allow City staff to seize all warming devices without offering any meaningful assistance in return and give police the right to arrest any homeless person who resists.
The City of Maple Ridge has not supported the residents of Anita Place in obtaining the necessary supplies detailed in a Consent Order signed last November, which includes the provision of in-tent heaters. At that time we were hopeful that we were entering a new phase in which the City would collaborate with residents facing homelessness to ensure their safety.Read more