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'Washroom drama' frustrates Oppenheimer Park campers

Last Updated Nov 7, 2019 at 6:29 am PDT

FILE - Tents in a homeless camp at Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver on Sept. 6, 2019. (Lasia Kretzel, NEWS 1130 Photo)

Campers occupied the park's bathrooms Wednesday frustrated by what they saw as an unexplained, unexpected closure

The Park Board says while sanitation and heat are pressing issues, safety remains their chief concern

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Bathrooms are the latest flashpoint in a conflict between the residents of Oppenheimer Park and city officials.

A drainage issue in the main bathrooms is set to be repaired Thursday morning, according to Park Board Commissioner Tricia Barker.

This follows a brief occupation of the bathroom Wednesday by frustrated residents of the camp who say they were abruptly locked out of the facilities without being informed of the closure.

They have been camping in the park for over a year, but locals have become more and more frustrated with safety concerns and impacts to local businesses. A spate of violence recently pushed police and the city to take action, and the city evicted most of the residents this summer, but many have returned.

The Park Board has been facing mounting pressure to get an injunction to permanently clear the camp or hand over jurisdiction to the city. The campers, who have been experiencing homelessness and difficulty finding a more permanent housing situation, say they have nowhere else to go.

Barker says seeing to their basic needs, like heat and sanitation, is an ongoing challenge. She says a recent city official’s attempt to clean out the port-o-potties was thwarted.

“He was threatened, so he wasn’t able to clean them out,” she says. “Obviously, everything is escalating down there and these problems with the bathrooms are not helping.”

Chrissy Brett, a liaison for the residents of the park, says volunteers did not observe any issues with plumbing in the bathrooms, adding the port-o-potties have not been maintained in quite some time.

She says the closure of the washrooms was unexpected and unexplained, but was sorted out by Wednesday evening after a back-and-forth with the city.

“We’ve currently come to a conclusion with the washroom drama,” she says.

Brett, clarifying a personal opinion, says she is concerned the city is deliberately cutting back on sanitation and maintenance in order to make the park less habitable.

“I personally believe that this is the mayor just trying to cut off services and support and trying just to freeze them out with services,”  she says. “Just one more step so they can make it super uncomfortable for people here at the park.”

Barker says safety remains the overriding issue at Oppenheimer Park.

“Our biggest concern there is not the cold, not the bathrooms, not anything else. It’s the violence that’s happening down there.”

In recent months, the Vancouver Police Department has raised concerns over the “deteriorating” conditions in the surrounding area, attributing a spike in nearby crime to the tent city in Oppenheimer Park.

Critics have argued although safety in the area is a concern, clearing the camp will not solve the underlying problem, that the occupants have nowhere else to go.

Last month the Park Board again decided not to seek a court-order that would compel campers to leave, despite being urged by the Vancouver Police Department, firefighters and city staff to do so.

Vancouver is the only city in British Columbia with an elected Park Board, so any move to take over Oppenheimer Park would have to be approved by both the board itself and by city council.

So far, the Park Board has not agreed to cede jurisdiction to the city.