Vancouver's Oppenheimer Park faces long remediation before returning to public use

It's been three weeks since a long entrenched encampment was finally cleared from Vancouver's Oppenheimer Park and as Kristen Robinson reports, the challenge now is to return the greenspace to its use as a public park while preventing it from becoming another tent city.

It’s been three weeks since a longstanding tent city was finally cleared from Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park, and as the remediation progresses, one of the biggest challenges will be preventing another encampment from sprouting up once the now-trashed green space reopens as a public park.

The province took control of the Downtown Eastside (DTES) park in late April for a planned decampment as part of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

BC Housing says by the May 9 deadline — set in an order under the Emergency Program Act — 261 people had moved out of Oppenheimer and into temporary housing in hotels and community centres.

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After 18 months as a homeless encampment entrenched in drugs and crime, the now vacant public park is littered with debris and remains fenced off amid a lengthy restoration process.

“There’s needles, there’s glass,” said Social Development and Poverty Reduction minister Shane Simpson.

“I expect it’s going to take a couple of months at least to get the park back and open again.”

Gladys Lee, 66, has lived near Oppenheimer her entire life and says it’s worth the wait.

The senior who used to volunteer at the park daily and participate in arts-and-crafts programs for children at its field house, says the neighbourhood is a lot quieter now.

“You wouldn’t believe how much safer we feel,” Lee told Global News.

Simpson says the province turned Oppenheimer over to the city of Vancouver and Park Board after the homeless transition was complete.

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As the city assesses damage, discussions are underway between all three stakeholders and the community about what Oppenheimer 2.0 should look like, and how to avoid a repeat of recent history

“This has happened four times in the past and we really aren’t looking for a fifth tent city,” said Simpson.

Simpson believes there should be zero tolerance for another encampment at the site, with immediate action taken if a growing number of tents starts to appear. Keeping local residents engaged in owning their public space is also crucial.

“I’m hopeful the community itself will play a big role in not having it go back to a tent city,” Simpson told Global News.

“Because people in there, I know they want their park back.”

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“This is our foundation, this is where we build our community,” said Lee.

“That’s what I’ve really missed.”

Lee says tents would not be tolerated in any other city park, and when Oppenheimer eventually reopens as a public space, she hopes it remains safe for everyone.

“We don’t want to lose it no more. No more of this, I really want city hall to think about that.”

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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