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The Tragedy of Oppenheimer Park

Campers need wrap-around supports; instead they face harassment and uncertainty.

John Millar 30 Jul 2019TheTyee.ca

Dr. John Millar is a former B.C. Provincial Health Officer.

I am shocked and outraged at the harassment and abuse of residents in Oppenheimer Park by City of Vancouver staff.

These citizens are living in the park because of some combination of adverse events in their lives. The causes include deep poverty, homelessness, mental health challenges, drug addiction, physical or mental disabilities, family breakups, job loss, racism (many are of Indigenous or immigrant ancestry), abuse, ostracization and just plain bad luck. Many will have experienced these from an early age.

In other words, these campers are victims of circumstances arising from our social, economic and political systems that are well beyond their personal control or responsibility. As such, these campers deserve to be treated as we do those with traffic injuries or cancer — with respect, dignity, empathy and effective care.

There is good evidence to show that people in these circumstances can be cost-effectively helped to recover from many of their challenges if they are provided with adequate, safe housing with “wrap-around” services including mental health and addictions care, appropriate physical care, enough income, skills training, employment opportunities and social supports.

The Housing First programs and the Chez Soi initiative in Canada have been well evaluated and show such positive results.

Instead, at Oppenheimer Park, the residents are being harassed by frequent disruptive “inspections,” often leading to the confiscation and removal of their possessions in the name of safety. Police and fire department, engineering and parks staff are all frequent visitors.

While I support keeping the camp safe from fire hazards and crime, it is the way this is being done that is the problem. There have been documented incidents of verbal abuse and racist comments by city staff over the past months. Moreover, the residents are not being supported with adequate toilet, washing and safe cooking facilities (not to mention cooling or warming amenities).

Fiona York of the Carnegie Community Action Project is a regular visitor to the camp. She says people’s possessions are being taken on a daily basis by city staff, and the constant inspections and visits amount to harassment. Campers have reported racist remarks and abuse from some staff, she said.

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John Roseborough says he moved to Oppenheimer Park to support a friend who was trying to stop using drugs. Photo by Dexter McMillan.

If it is the intent of the City of Vancouver to ensure the safety of the Oppenheimer campers, then it should consult with their public health professionals who could advise them of the range of health hazards that can arise directly or indirectly from homelessness.

Homelessness goes hand in hand with poverty and mental health and addictions challenges. Even for campers who do not arrive with those problems, the daily experience of hunger, insecurity, anger, anxiety, depression, hopelessness and despair leads to physiologic effects related to stress — high blood pressure, suicidal ideation and self-medication with alcohol, opioids, tobacco and other substances. Health and safety are very much compromised by the potential for violence, intoxication and overdoses with alcohol, opioids or other substances. And the long-term impacts of homelessness include heart disease, strokes, lung disease, cancer and more.

So if the city truly wishes to assure the safety of the Oppenheimer campers, it should immediately stop the ongoing abuse and harassment of them by city staff and focus resources on their humane and empathetic care. That could include training for frontline staff in trauma-informed care, providing adequate hygiene, cooking and cooling/warming facilities and ensuring resources are available for primary health care and mental health and addictions care. That should include harm reduction interventions such as Naloxone kits, training and clean needles and syringes.

These interventions should be augmented by decriminalizing the possession of opioids for personal use and providing more street drug testing and a safe supply of opioids.

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Grapes are thriving in Red Robinson’s garden. But they’re too sour to eat, he says. Photo by Dexter McMillan.

In the longer term, as Mayor Kennedy Stewart has stated, the solution is to provide adequate social housing for these homeless people (as a human right). But it will be critical to recognize that housing alone is not the “magic bullet” solution to Oppenheimer — there must be adequate investment in and organization of the “wrap around” services described above. It will take time and a co-operative effort of all levels of government to achieve all this.

Meanwhile, Vancouver’s mayor and council need to show compassion and empathy and order a stop to this inhumane treatment of vulnerable, suffering people while providing the resources and training for a more supportive, humane approach to Oppenheimer residents.  [Tyee]

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