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Municipal Politics

Another Heat Wave Approaches, but Shade Is Still Behind Fences in the Downtown Eastside

Residents struggle to access parks as the park board tries to prevent another tent city.

Jen St. Denis 29 Jul 2021 |

Jen St. Denis is The Tyee’s Downtown Eastside reporter. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

Joseph Camé is relieved that Oppenheimer Park is finally open. The Downtown Eastside’s main park provides a cool place to sit when it gets hot, but it was completely closed during the first three days of a deadly heat dome event that hit the province in late June.

That left residents on hot sidewalks looking in at fenced-off shade.

“It’s beautiful here, it’s got shade and everything,” said Camé of Oppenheimer. He lives in a single-room occupancy hotel nearby and has difficulty walking, so he can’t easily visit other parks. He uses a walker that can double as a chair.

During the heat dome, Camé said, his room was suffocatingly hot, and in the daytime “we had to sit in the street, the sidewalk, but my chair — it got so hot. Now the park is open, it’s like ‘wow!’”

Oppenheimer Park had been closed for an entire year for repairs after officials removed a large tent city in May 2020. Following pressure from Vancouver residents, the park board reopened it one day earlier than planned on June 28.

As Vancouver experiences another heat wave, questions remain about whether the city and park board are moving quickly enough to make sure marginalized people have access to cooler places.

Although Oppenheimer is now open, the park board has fenced off a shady area filled with benches at nearby Crab Park and put up a fence along one side of it, in an effort to dissuade another large tent city from forming.

582px version of CrabParkBenchesFence.jpg
An area of Crab Park that has lots of shady benches has been closed off behind fences to deter people from camping. Photo by Jen St. Denis.

The Downtown Eastside is one of the hottest areas of the city, according to a map produced for the park board in 2018. The city’s hottest neighbourhoods are also where low-income people live and where COVID-19 spread during B.C.’s third wave.

Sarah Blyth, executive director of the Overdose Prevention Society, says people need to be encouraged, not discouraged, to go to parks during extreme heat events — and that includes the homeless people the park board is trying to dissuade from camping in Crab Park.

During the June heat dome, OPS staff and volunteers handed out hundreds of bottles of water, and she saw the desperation for water and ways to keep cool first-hand. She’s currently fundraising to buy more water to make sure OPS is prepared for this week’s hot weather.

Heat waves can also complicate overdoses, Blyth said. “We need people there handing out water. We need to open these parks, so they feel really comfortable to be there, and we need to get folks that need housing into housing right away.”

Andrew, a man who’s lived in Crab Park for several months, said there is currently no working water fountain in the park, and park board staff fenced off access to a water faucet that homeless people had been using. People who camp there now rely on daily water donations from supporters like Rider Cooey, a Vancouver resident who has supported encampments at Oppenheimer, Strathcona and Crab parks. Cooey brings jugs of water to the park and also supplies coffee.

The upcoming heat wave is so far not expected to be as serious as the heat dome the province experienced in late June: temperatures in Vancouver are forecast to reach 30 C. But because of climate change, extreme heat events are expected to become more common in B.C. — a province that isn’t used to experiencing temperatures above 40 C for long periods of time.

The heat dome was a frightening wake-up call. From June 25 to July 1, B.C. was hit with temperatures that soared into the mid-30s or 40s. The extraordinary weather event saw a high-pressure system lock in the high temperatures, with no relief overnight.

In Metro Vancouver, the 911 system and ambulance service were overwhelmed as first responders scrambled to respond to calls for help. The BC Coroners Service says 570 people lost their lives from heat-related causes during the heat dome, many of them seniors who live alone.

Gabrielle Peters is a disabled writer living in social housing and a member of the Vancouver Planning Commission, which advises the city on planning and development issues. Seeing Oppenheimer Park closed during the deadly heat wave spurred her to draft a memo to city council with recommendations on how to adapt quickly to save lives in the future.

Amina Yasin, a city planner who sits on the commission, also worked on the memo, which spurred a motion at city council and another at the park board. The council motion asked staff to look at the recommendations, while the motion at the park board asked staff to complete an inventory of “cooling aids” like water fountains, shaded benches and misting stations.

Peters says municipalities should leap into action much sooner when summer temperatures rise, with protocols that automatically ensure parks and beaches remain open all night (they normally close at 10 p.m.). The memo Peters and Yasin wrote also suggests setting up “pop-up cooling and clean-air tents,” and sending air-conditioned city buses to go directly to social housing, assisted living buildings or apartment blocks where people are having trouble keeping cool.

While most B.C. cities and towns encouraged residents to come to air-conditioned community centres and libraries, Peters pointed out that those facilities are open for limited hours, and people who are already struggling may find it impossible to make the journey to a community centre in hot weather. Some municipalities now say they will keep community centres open for extended hours during extreme heat.

Peters said disabled people and people with chronic health conditions are often poor and live in social housing buildings with no air conditioning, exacerbating their vulnerability to heat.

“If you’re talking about the Downtown Eastside, most people have multiple health conditions, there’s a really high rate of disability [there], so you’re looking at all of those things compounding and being impacted by previous decision-making,” Peters said. “Why is the housing so bad.... Why are there no trees? Because of previous decision-making.”

Peters says she’s glad the memo is being read and considered by decision-makers at city hall, but she’s still waiting to hear what action the city is going to take immediately.

Tricia Barker, an NPA park board commissioner, drafted the motion at the park board calling for the creation of a voluntary registry for seniors who may need help during a heat emergency. The motion also asked staff to do an inventory of park infrastructure like water fountains, benches in shaded areas, misting stations and cooling stations, and to make sure all those things are in good working order. Barker’s motion passed unanimously on July 19.

Asked about the fences up at Crab Park that prevent people from sitting on shaded benches, Barker said it’s a difficult issue to deal with. When tent cities at city parks grow into several hundred tents – which happened at Oppenheimer and Strathcona — other residents can’t use the parks.

Barker said it takes a long time for the parks to be repaired and usable after a tent city is removed: Oppenheimer just reopened, and half of Strathcona Park, where a tent city was removed at the end of April, is still behind a fence.

“It’s either close a bit of it now so the encampment doesn’t start, or close it for a long time afterwards,” Barker said.

But Blyth said it’s not acceptable to deter people from using parks during heat waves, and the park board needs to think about other ways of dealing with homelessness in parks than closing off portions of green space when people are desperate to cool down.

“If it’s because you’re afraid people are going to camp there, then you need to set up other systems, like having people being interviewed for housing,” Blyth said. “Sending people away to have them lie on the pavement — it’s not a good way to deal with that issue.”

Cooey, the resident who provides water to the camps, said the park board should allow smaller encampments in parks across the city, with limits on size. But ultimately, Cooey said, the federal government needs to commit to building much more housing that people actually want to live in, instead of the shelter and SRO spots that camp residents often reject or move out of.

Camé said he used to live in a tent at Stanley Park but was moved into an SRO six months ago. He preferred his tent home, so he said he understands why people choose to tent in parks rather than live in tiny SRO rooms with no kitchens and shared bathrooms. In summer, many SRO residents head out to tent as a way to escape their rooms.

Even so, Camé said he wants the high blue fence that still surrounds Oppenheimer Park to stay up so everyone can continue to use the park and it doesn’t become a tent city again.

“People like me have no place to go — in my room, I’m dying. It’s so hot,” he said.  [Tyee]

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