Vancouver, homelessness, Oppenheimer Park
Campers settle in for the first night at a new homeless encampment on Vancouver's waterfront after the one at Oppenheimer Park was shut down. All photos by Jesse Winter.

The Last Days of Oppenheimer Park, Vancouver’s Tent City

Authorities shut down the camp, one of Canada's largest, over fears of coronavirus spreading throughout its residents.
May 12, 2020, 6:44pm

The park was mostly empty of people when the bulldozing began.

After nearly two years, one of Canada’s largest and longest-running tent cities is gone—the remnants crushed beneath the wheels of heavy machinery and scooped into dumpsters on the weekend.

It took a global pandemic to do what the City of Vancouver had attempted at least once before.

On April 25, Shane Simpson, BC’s Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, announced a public safety order to shut the camp down over fears of COVID-19 spreading through the community.

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City of Vancouver staff use heavy equipment to dismantle remaining tents at Vancouver's Oppenheimer Park on Saturday, May 9.

Two other encampments in Victoria would also be shut down, Simpson said.

Everyone living in all three encampments would be offered space in an empty hotel room or other accommodation. The government said it had found more than 1,000 spaces across both cities—in a mix of empty hotel rooms and community centres — to house people.

Campers at Oppenheimer Park were given a two-week deadline to either accept the offered housing, or face possible arrest. Outreach staff spent that time speaking with residents at the park, preparing (and in some cases convincing) them to take the hotel rooms.

In the end, B.C. Housing says more than 260 campers were moved out.

Kim Berg was one of the last to leave. As the final deadline of noon on Saturday came and went, Berg was busy collecting her belongings to move to what she described as an SRO hotel unit.

“It’s a 12-by-12 room,” Berg said. “It’ll be like being back in prison.”

Sitting on the sidewalk across from the park, Berg sorted through shopping carts and suitcases full of her worldly belongings. She tried to get everything out of the park before the deadline, but says she was prevented from retrieving all of it because city staff fenced off her tent area before she was finished.

“My son’s ashes were in that tent,” she said. “And my mom’s.” Everything ended up in a dumpster, she said.

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Kim Berg sits among the belongings she was able to retrieve from Oppenheimer Park before the homeless encampment there was closed.

Berg said she’s happy to have a room and grateful for the $150 she was given by a local non-profit to buy new clothes and sheets, but she will miss living in the park.

“It was like having cable TV right outside your tent,” she said. “People were always laughing and drinking, partying and fighting. We all worked together to make sure everyone was taken care of.”

While she’s sad to be leaving, Berg’s experience wasn’t shared by everyone. As the camp grew in size, so did the challenges its residents faced.

On a warm spring afternoon, before the maze of blue fencing began going up, two women could be heard arguing inside one of the park’s two overdose prevention tents.

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Jay Duncan waits in his tent with a friend, hoping for one of the promised hotel rooms for campers at Oppenheimer Park

As one of the women tried to leave, the other ran into a nearby tent, emerged with an aluminum baseball bat, and attacked the first woman—hitting her repeatedly in the arms and shoulders as the woman fled.

The day of the deadline, another couple stood arguing on the sidewalk. Some of their belongings were still inside the park and the woman hoped to convince the police to let her retrieve them.

“They’re never gonna give us our shit back,” said the man who was with her. “Let’s just go. Now,” he said, before threatening to beat her.

The Oppenheimer Park tent city started in the summer of 2018. It grew out of a protest against rising homelessness and the housing affordability crisis that has gripped Vancouver in recent years. Advocates from groups like Our Homes Can’t Wait, and the Carnegie Community Action Project helped organize and support the encampment.

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Vancouver fire department staff watch as bulldozers scour the remainder of a tent encampment from Oppenheimer Park.

While there were never firm figures on its population, the number of people sleeping in the park swelled to highs of around 300 at various points in its almost two-year existence. That’s roughly half the number of people believed to be sleeping outdoors, and a fraction of Vancouver’s total homeless population of around 2,300.

And while many of those now have housing, the City of Vancouver faced repeated criticism that shutting down the park was more about housing the most visible of Vancouver’s homeless, not its most vulnerable.

As the blue fencing creeped further and further into the park in the days before the deadline, Chrissy Brett—long the park’s unofficial spokeswoman—rallied community members and volunteers to help her move to a new location.

A private donation paid for two U-Haul trucks, she said. The final destination was kept secret until the early-morning move to an empty parking lot on the city’s waterfront beside Crab Park.

As volunteers began unloading the gear, a Port of Vancouver security officer rolled his vehicle slowly towards the U-Hauls. He asked the group to move out of the parking lot to the adjacent park. When they refused, he drove away - replaced later by first one, then two, then ultimately 4 police vehicles and a half-dozen officers.

For most of the day they sat keeping watch over the nascent encampment, but not intervening even as Chrissy Brett lit a sacred fire and prayed over cedar bows, smoke billowing through the parking lot.

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Activists from Our Homes Can't Wait staged a protest, blocking the intersection at Main and Hastings in the days leading up to closing the homeless encampment at Oppenheimer Park.

Back at Oppenheimer, the final few campers were packing what they could as the machines crushed old tents and piles of belongings into mounds of garbage. The last person to leave the park itself - who declined to give his name - rushed to pack under the watchful gaze of a police officer. He’d been given a three-hour extension to get out.

Fiona York, an organizer with the Carnegie Community Action Project, circled the park tensely, speaking to people huddled with their things on the sidewalks. She told them of the growing encampment at the waterfront, and urged them to move there if they felt they needed to.

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People gather around a sacred fire at the new homeless encampment on Vancouver's waterfront after the one at Oppenheimer Park was shut down.

As the sun set on the final day of the Oppenheimer Park encampment, about a dozen tents and a handful of people gathered around a sacred fire at the newly-named Namegans 2.0 camp.

The police had gone, the campers watched over by a solitary security guard from the Port of Vancouver, and the glittering condo towers of the city’s downtown.

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