Homeless in Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park set up warming centre

Propane heaters defy fire chief’s order banning heat sources

Snow and cold temperatures have forced representatives of the Oppenheimer Park homeless camp to set up a warming tent the size of a transit bus and heat it with propane heaters.

The move Thursday comes despite the city’s ongoing concern about fire and safety hazards posed by heating tents in the Downtown Eastside park currently blanketed in snow.

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Firefighters have responded to several tent fires over the past year, despite an order in place to forbid campers to have heaters, propane tanks, fuel, barbecues and candles in tents.

Camp coordinator Chrissy Brett said the heaters, which were donated, were fired up because the city and Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services have not provided a solution to keep campers warm in the park.

“The first night we had about 30 people,” said Brett, who spoke to reporters in the park Friday morning while three people slept in the large tent.

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The Oppenheimer Park warming centre. Photo Mike Howell

The Carnegie Community Action Project and the Pivot Legal Society have also written letters to the city demanding a solution, emphasizing that shelters are not the answer for everyone.

Fiona York of the Carnegie Community Action Project, who was in the park Friday, pointed to the city’s homeless count report from last year in which about 400 homeless people stated reasons for avoiding shelters.

Those reasons included they didn’t feel safe, had problems with shelter staff, couldn’t bring their pet with them, the prevalence of bedbugs and pests and preferred to be alone.  

Plus, many shelters are at capacity at this time of year.

The city’s position on the park has not changed for months, with staff continuing to work to locate housing for campers and open shelters and community centres as emergency warming centres.

At last count, the city said 40 people were living in the park, while Brett estimated Friday it was closer to 100.

The city’s communications department said in an email Friday that “heating tents or other temporary structures pose significant fire and other safety hazards, thus making it very difficult to maintain an acceptable level of safety.”

The city said warming centres have been open all week and received more than 1,200 visits. The Powell Street Getaway, which allows pets and carts, is located a half-block from the park and opened 32 nights this winter, the city said.

In a Jan. 13 letter to Caitlin Shane of the Pivot Legal Society, the city’s deputy city manager Paul Mochrie pointed out Fire Chief Darrell Reid’s order to ban any “dangerous sources of heat” in the park has been in place since February 2019.

“These activities increase the likelihood of injury or death for people in the park and the surrounding area,” Mochrie wrote.

“For the safety of everyone in the area, the city urges those people using the park to abide by the fire chief’s order and make use of the facilities available at our community centres, shelters and warming centres.”

Deputy fire chief Rob Renning told park board commissioners at a Sept. 26, 2019 meeting that firefighters responded to 20 tent fires since August. The Courier requested an update on the number of fires from the fire department but all inquiries regarding the park were directed to the city's communications department.

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Chrissy Brett (far right) along with other representatives of the Oppenheimer Park homeless camp. Photo Mike Howell

A homeless person in the park Friday who identified himself as “Mike” said he has slept in Oppenheimer for two weeks. He said he’s helped people place wooden pallets under their tents to keep them off the cold ground.

He said he keeps his tent warm by creating his own makeshift heating source out of a combination of bricks and twigs.

“I’m a survivor, I lived in Alberta through the winter time,” he said

Mike argued that government takes better care of refugees to Canada than the people who were born and raised in the country.

“If they want us to reintegrate into society, they shouldn’t make us go to the very bottom because that breaks a person,” he said.

“It breaks their will and their spirit, then we don’t have hope. We need to be able to look up and say, ‘OK, everything is going to be OK.’ There’s a reason everybody down here is staring at the ground.”

mhowell@vancourier.com

@Howellings

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