The growing number of people calling Oppenheimer Park home has changed the plans for more Vancouver events this summer.
But instead of crying foul, organizers say they are respecting the campers who have nowhere else to go.
On Saturday, for the first time in years the Lotus Light Charity was forced to set up on the street outside the park for its annual event, which hands out food and gifts to people experiencing homelessness in the Downtown Eastside.
“Most of the time we hold it in the park,” the charity’s executive director Teresa Fung said. “We just wanted to make sure we had a safe place to hold our event.
“We still want to show that we care for them and love them. You may think looks bad, but we need to understand why they’re there.”
The Union Gospel Mission is also moving its annual summer barbecue from Oppenheimer for the first time in 20 years, instead setting up in Crab Park next Saturday.
But spokesperson Jeremy Hunka said the charity would rather find a new location than disrupt the campers’ lives.
“It all comes down to respect,” he said. “We don’t want to disrupt, displace, disrespect people who are living there already under difficult circumstances.
“We don’t believe the solution is just moving and displacing people,” he added.
The two relocations come after the Powell Street Festival announced it will move its upcoming celebration of Japanese culture after 43 years inside the downtown park.
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The number of tents inside Oppenheimer Park has grown once again this year, with nearly 90 counted earlier this week. Some of the tents have been there since 2018.
A large homeless camp formed in the park in 2014 before getting dismantled by the city.
In April of this year, the Vancouver Park Board attempted to temporarily move the campers to the margins of the park for field maintenance work.
The board said the work was necessary ahead of several scheduled summer events, including the ones that have now been displaced.
Within weeks, the city reversed course, saying too many campers were impeding the work to complete it properly.
Vancouver city council approved a motion in March directing staff to provide supports for the campers in Oppenheimer Park, including washrooms and a temporary warming station.
That motion echoed a similar directive from the park board.
No timeline has been given for when those supports will be set up.
Park Board commissioner John Coupar said more supports are needed from the city to help the campers and free up the park space.
“I think we were expecting by now that the city would have had a plan to perhaps move these people into housing and keep the park safe for everybody so everybody can enjoy the park,” he said.
Until then, Coupar said not every festival will have the ability to relocate due to the growing number of campers, which could lead to cancellations.
“The park board needs to be a little better supported by the City of Vancouver to say, ‘We’re gonna keep parks clean and safe, we’re gonna find other alternatives,'” he said.
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In a statement Friday, the City of Vancouver said it is working to keep those in the park safe and is working alongside Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services to enforce a fire chief’s order that has been in place in the park for a few months.
“The order is applicable to all individuals in the park and sets out a number of specific fire and life safety requirements. However, we are growing increasingly worried as we continue to see non-compliance with the Fire Chief’s order,” the city said.
“We understand many important community festivals and gatherings are planned throughout the summer in Oppenheimer Park, and the City and Park Board staff will continue to work closely with event organizers to accommodate as many events as possible.”
—With files from Nadia Stewart and Simon Little
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