Forging a Different Path
Credit: Chloé Barrette-Bennington for Exeko

Responding to homelessness can be outside the comfort zone of park professionals, but initiatives in Vancouver and Montreal offer insights on how to approach complex issues—from safety concerns to park revitalization.

The case of Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park

Until May 2020, Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park was the site of one of Canada’s largest and longest-standing encampments, lasting one and a half years and home to roughly 300 residents at times.

Rather than clearing the park, the Vancouver Park Board adopted an approach centred on better understanding and meeting the needs of park residents, with the goal of coming to a collaborative resolution.

However, the Provincial Government intervened to clear the park in early May 2020 when COVID-19 left residents exceptionally vulnerable, offering temporary housing in hotels.

Interviews for this piece took place in February 2020, prior to these interventions, and the situation remains fluid at the time of writing in May 2020.

Still, looking back on Vancouver’s experience offers insights on other possibilities for addressing homelessness in parks, and strategies for moving the conversation forward.

A collaborative approach

Oppenheimer Park is located in the heart of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a neighbourhood that faces significant challenges around extreme poverty and has been at the forefront of the opioid crisis, but also has a strong sense of community.

“This is a park that sort of acts as a lightning rod for a lot of social issues, and health issues, and economic issues in our city and in our province and in our country,” said Park Board Chair, Camil Dumont.

When advised by staff to seek an injunction to clear the park in fall 2019, the Park Board “wasn't comfortable with taking that as an isolated action,” Dumont said.

“We sort of interpreted that as an act of displacement in a neighbourhood, and within a community of people, who have pretty significant challenges just from a survival perspective,” he said. “The act of physically removing them or criminalizing them … I think only would have led to those folks being further isolated.”

Instead, the Park Board hired PHS Community Services Society, a non-profit housing organization with strong roots in the Downtown Eastside, to connect with park residents and provide recommendations about enhancing safety, improving support, and seeking appropriate shelter.

The Park Board also directed staff to strengthen relationships with the city and BC Housing, and revise bylaws* on camping in parks to bring them in line with legal precedents.

The plan required actions to be taken in consultation with park residents, and within a commitment to reconciliation. Only with these conditions met would the Park Board consider seeking an injunction.

When it comes to safety, consider hierarchy of needs

One of the most contentious issues when it comes to encampments in parks is safety—and conflicting perceptions and concerns around it.

According to Chrissy Brett, former part-time resident and liaison in Oppenheimer Park, the most pressing safety concerns of Oppenheimer residents related to the ability to meet basic needs—including access to washrooms, heating during the colder months, and harm reduction supports.

But safety concerns were also the reason cited by the city when, in summer 2019, they pulled staff from a fieldhouse in the park that ran vital community programming.

The closure of the fieldhouse along with perceptions of unsafety deterred some residents of the surrounding neighbourhood, many low income or precariously housed themselves, from accessing the park. Dumont acknowledged that there’d been “an incredible negative impact” to people who relied on the space and no longer felt comfortable using it, as there are few other green spaces in the neighbourhood.

To assess these competing concerns, the approach that the Park Board has taken is to apply a “hierarchy of needs” lens.

“From a parks perspective, I think the needs of those who are taking refuge in the park are quite obvious,” Dumont explained. “The needs of those in the community who need the park are less front and center, but it's not a voice that is lost on us either by any means.”

“We know that this park needs to be returned to a programmable space at some point, it's kind of the 'how we get there' that's complicated,” he added—a process that will become even more complicated due to the recent interventions and new considerations COVID-19 brings.

Cultivate support through education

Another strategy for managing concerns about encampments is through public education.

Housed residents often have broad misunderstandings of homelessness in parks, scholar Jeff Rose said, which can be problematic when misinformed complaints place pressure on parks departments to take short-term responses.

Dr. Rose’s 2019 research with co-author Milo Neild suggests that education campaigns can help to mobilize “the vital public support needed” to move from reactive responses toward “proactive, holistic engagements with homelessness in parks.” The piece provides a list of suggested messaging for municipalities to use.

At Oppenheimer, Chrissy Brett saw the effects of public education in practice. Through casual conversations, she took on the role of engaging with housed residents in the neighbourhood. She spoke with them about the challenges faced by park residents—often rooted in colonial structures and practices, with a majority of the park population identifying as Indigenous—and the peer-led programs in place.

For example, Brett often taught parents about the “neighbourhood watch” program run by park residents, where they would alert each other to the presence of children to ensure any non-kid-friendly activities were concealed. “Because they’ve never been protected, [park residents] are very protective of the children, so they’re very respectful and able to share that space,” Brett said.

When she’d educate people about this, Brett would “see housed people and mothers, like, start tearing up.” She added that “it’s amazing to see how people morph and change,” noting that some people who previously avoided the park became comfortable using it once they were better informed.

Start the conversation and embrace discomfort

While acknowledging the work can be intimidating, Vancouver Park Board’s Camil Dumont advises parks staff in other cities to embrace the responsibility to strive for more inclusive solutions.

“It's pretty uncomfortable for everyone, ourselves included, to try to forge a different path here,” said Dumont, but “as branches of government, from the lowest to the highest, our responsibility is to try to figure out how we can best help people and how we can move away from harm.”

That work begins with starting a conversation, Brett noted, one that includes park residents, and respects the need for both consultation and consent. “I think more municipalities need to have that dialogue around, 'how are we going to deal with tent cities?',” she said. “Because they aren't disappearing.”

The case of Montreal’s Cabot Square

In downtown Montreal, Cabot Square is an important social space for the homeless community. Over the past 30 to 40 years, it has become an informal public reception area for Indigenous people, and Inuit people in particular. Often coming to the city from northern Quebec and Nunavut to access healthcare at a nearby hospital, some have found themselves without a place of residence in Montreal upon discharge.

Montreal's Cabot Square is an important gathering space for the Indigenous community. Credit: Lori Calman
Montreal's Cabot Square is an important gathering space for the Indigenous community. Credit: Lori Calman
Plan for inclusive revitalization, and bring services to parks

Over the years, advocates have worked with the City of Montreal to ensure that the park remains an accessible gathering space for people experiencing unsheltered homelessness and Indigenous homelessness. When the city began planning the revitalization of the square in 2010, one of the proposed steps was to move park regulars into a neighboring vacant lot.

When invited to give input in the planning process, Nakuset, the director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal and co-director of the Montreal Indigenous Community Network, opposed this approach, stressing the importance of the park as a gathering place for Indigenous people and the need for the community to remain in place.

In collaboration with the First Peoples Justice Center, they carried out research, partly paid for by the city, outlining strategies and recommendations to support social inclusion and properly consider the realities of people experiencing homelessness in the revitalization process.

The main recommendations were to integrate two social workers and a mediator in the square. “Instead of moving people who are homeless from the park, let's give them the services they need,” said Nakuset.

After several years of discussions and negotiations, the city accepted the recommendations and allowed Nakuset’s team to hire a social worker, who, since 2014, has provided a presence in the park five days a week, allowing people to access culturally appropriate services and psychological support without leaving the park.

When COVID-19 heightened the need for additional services in parks, Resilience Montreal, a new day centre adjacent to Cabot Square that Nakuset co-manages, brought its services to the park to provide washrooms, food, counselling, and other resources for people experiencing homelessness. It was one of the first of five outdoor day centres in parks to open in Montreal, through a partnership between the city and local organizations.

To learn more about the need for non-displacement approaches, see Part 1. To read about how creative park programming is changing perceptions and building connections between differently housed community members, see Part 3.

*As of July 14 2020, the Park Board approved new bylaws that allow overnight camping in parks, but only until 7am and only in designated areas of the park system.