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Community mourns Oppenheimer Park death, debate over fate of camp continues

Last Updated Jan 4, 2020 at 9:31 am PST

About 130 people have been living in the tent city at Oppenheimer Park for over a year. (Source: CityNews Vancouver)

The man who died was not a resident of the encampment in Oppenheimer Park but was a frequent visitor

One park board member says they will not seek an injunction to clear the park, a city councillor is urging action

There has been a debate over getting an injunction to evict campers since summer, with VPD citing safety as a concern

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — A man has died after a violent altercation in Oppenheimer Park and one Vancouver Park Board commissioner says evicting people from the homeless camp is not an option.

62-year-old Jesus Cristobal-Esteban died in hospital Thursday after an assault on New Year’s Day. His death is being investigated as the city’s first homicide of 2020.

“Any death involving people fighting each other is a tragedy,” says Commissioner John Irwin, noting concerns have been raised about an increase in violence and crime in the area near the park.

“When I go there I meet with residents and it’s definitely not an ideal place for people to be because I’d like to see them housed,” Irwin says. “Generally, I’ve felt safe myself and haven’t felt threatened at all.”

Irwin says the board will continue to prioritize finding housing over clearing the park of campers by getting a court order that would require them to leave.

“I don’t see that just pushing people into dark corners is actually going to solve the issue,” he explains. “The provincial and federal governments need to step in and come up with some housing for people. If people were off the streets it wouldn’t solve all these incidents necessarily but people would be safer and they’d be out of the elements and in a better mental condition as well.”

Irwin says the city has a role to play.

He says there are multiple suitable sites, including one on East Hastings Street, on which to build temporary modular housing.

In the meantime, he says the city could rent or lease a hotel to house the residents of the camp like it did when faced with a similar situation in 2014.

Community mourns

Jesus Cristobal-Esteban was not a resident at the park but was a part of the community, according to park liaison Chrissy Brett.

“He was here on a daily basis. He played basketball in our basketball court, he had many friends and family,” she says. “He was a very respected Latino elder here on the Downtown Eastside.”

She says he lived in the neighbourhood and offered art classes at the field house in the park before it closed.

“He will be sadly missed by the tent city community as well as the outlying Latino community that he was a part of. His art will definitely be sadly missed. We send condolences out to the rest of his friends and family.”

Brett says her understanding was the altercation was provoked by two people who do not live in the park. Police have not confirmed this detail.

A statement issued by Brett after Cristobal-Esteban’s death echoes Irwin’s call for resources and housing.

“More resources are needed at Oppenheimer Park, and urgent action on housing to reflect the current homelessness crisis. We continue to call for safe housing, health and safety resources, life-saving warming tents and sanitation, and supports to provide a dignified life in less than ideal circumstances where vulnerable people are doing the best they are able.”

Councillor urges action

Coun. Melissa DeGenova says safety concerns have been repeatedly raised by city staff, park board staff, and first responders.

“There are concerns across the board for the safety of individuals in the encampment. One of those concerns was regarding the violent crime and criminal element that came to be around and in the park,” she says. “In fact, I’m concerned for the safety of the vulnerable and marginalized people who are participating in the encampment. Some of them have no other choice at the moment as to where to go.”

She says violent crime is one concern, but fire hazards and the overdose crisis are other pressing safety issues.

De Genova says housing was offered in August and she remains troubled that the board is not seeking a court order to clear the park.

“This is tragic, this is terrible. I am calling on the park board chair to do expedite this, to meet urgently, to give staff the authority to move forward,” she says. “If I myself was still a park board commissioner I would not be able to hear this news about this individual who has unfortunately died and not reconsider my stance, or call for an injunction.”

De Genova was a park board commissioner in 2014 and says the decision to seek an injunction then was based on safety, adding the move to lease a hotel only happened after the court order to clear the camp.

Debate persists 

There has been an active debate over getting an injunction to evict campers since the summer.

The seven-person park board remains split on the issue.

In September, the Park Board voted against pursuing a court order to clear the camp after a lengthy, emergency meeting.

In December, commissioners agreed to seek a court injunction, but only once a number of conditions have been met, including a third-party assessment of the camp and how it could be made safer for those who have chosen to live there.

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.

Mayor Kennedy Stewart asked the board to cede jurisdiction to the city late last year.

The Vancouver Police Department has reported a surge in 911 calls and advocated to the Park Board and the city in favour of clearing the camp.