Deal reached in Vancouver to help the homeless; and work to close park encampment

VANCOUVER — A formal agreement has been signed by British Columbia, the city and parks board to work together to end a 10-month encampment in Vancouver that has frustrated residents who lost access to a park in their neighbourhood.

Housing Minister David Eby said Tuesday the agreement will involve the province, city and parks board as they try to find solutions to difficult social problems like homelessness involving other encampments in the future.

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Strathcona Park has been occupied since last June by people living in up to 400 tents. The province has promised to provide housing by April 30.

Eby said the agreement is a commitment to work together on an ongoing basis to minimize the risk of future encampments in public spaces.

Part of the commitment involves the city and the park board enforcing bylaws on camping in public places when suitable spaces are available for people to move indoors.

Earlier this month, the B.C. government announced it had bought three more hotels with a total of 249 units to help house the homeless. About 114 units are expected to be available soon.

"The reality is that the province can't force anybody to live in these shelters that we have or in permanent housing," Eby said in an interview. "So the message will be for folks that they are welcome to either live inside or not, but they can't stay in the park."

He said residents of previous encampments in Victoria and Surrey have been willing to move on when an indoor space was provided for them, and that's what he is hoping for at Strathcona Park.

"My hope is that we're able to reach a mutual agreement with the closing of the encampment. I think that with the stabbings and the overdoses and the attacks and fires, that the folks who are running the encampments are tired, too," he said.

Mayor Kennedy Stewart said in a statement Tuesday that "it's clear we need long-term, co-ordinated action across jurisdictions."

The Vancouver Park Board issued an order for campers a week ago to remove structures from the northeast side of Strathcona Park by Thursday.

Katie Lewis, vice-president of the Strathcona Residents’ Association, said she is hoping for a peaceful transition but is worried some may not leave the park if all their demands are not met.

"There's been a real impact on the Strathcona community as well as campers," she said.

Residents are concerned about the mental health needs of some of the campers as well as those who are struggling with addiction, Lewis said.

"We've spoken with many of them. There are people that have simply lost a job and don't have anywhere to live. There's diverse kinds of people there, people that have a dog and can't find a place that takes pets."

A group representing those in the park has said they want residences that are at least 600 square feet, that allow drug use and have no restrictions on guests. No one from the group was available for comment on Tuesday.

The campers moved into Strathcona Park after the Vancouver Port Authority won a court injunction requiring them to leave nearby CRAB park. They previously camped at Oppenheimer Park, which was shut down by the B.C. government after nearly two years over fears of COVID-19 spreading.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 6, 2021.

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