British Columbia

'People are freezing here': No heat for homeless in Oppenheimer Park a human rights concern, advocates say

Oppenheimer Park advocate Chrissy Brett says people in the tent city risk dying of exposure as temperatures drop and is calling on the city to come up with a way to keep people warm that does not violate the ban on open flames and portable heating devices in tents.

Portable heating devices are banned inside tents despite frigid temperatures

Oppenheimer Park advocate Chrissy Brett holds Taco the dog on Thursday in Vancouver. Both are bundled in warm sweaters in an attempt to keep out the chill. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

An advocate for the dozens of homeless people trying to keep away the cold while sleeping in their tents in a Vancouver park says the city needs to help come up with ways to keep everyone warm.

Oppenheimer Park camp advocate Chrissy Brett says a city ban on open flames and portable heating devices inside tents means people have no legal way to warm up. People are at risk of dying from exposure in winter weather if a solution is not reached, she said.

"People are freezing here," Brett said Thursday in an interview on CBC's The Early Edition. She pointed out events and restaurants have found ways to heat large tents and patios safely and suggested bringing in something similar to the Downtown Eastside park.

She said people in the park are not allowed to run electrical cords into the park, which also means there is no light at night and people are using the overdose prevention site in candlelight.

The volunteer-run overdose prevention centre in Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park has no light source at night. People have been using candles to see. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

"It's worse than a third-world country," said Brett. "We've been calling for our Indigenous leaders and our political leaders that are truly concerned to call in disaster relief and humanitarian aid."

She said until long-term housing solutions are created for homeless Canadians, municipalities should work with tent city advocates to keep people safer at those sites.

Serious human rights concerns

Last week, Brett met with the secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, Alex Neve, while he toured the park. Neve said he was deeply concerned about the human rights issues he saw there.

"Both the reasons why people feel compelled to be there, and the conditions they are enduring, are all about human rights," said Neve on CBC's The Early Edition Friday. He noted that access to adequate housing is an internationally protected human right  and said that includes conditions that are safe and "sufficiently warm to be habitable."

"From a human rights perspective, it is not simply enough to say you can't have fires and open heaters without engaging in a constructive decision about what else is going to be available," said Neve.

He said the "overwhelming number" of Indigenous people living in Oppenheimer Park also reflects other human rights concerns in Canada, including violence against Indigenous women, disproportionate levels of poverty for Indigenous people and unresolved land rights in British Columbia.

Brett stands near a fire pit at Oppenheimer Park on Thursday. She says people living in the encampment are forced to break the law and heat their tents to avoid getting sick. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Warming centres open overnight

There are more than 2,200 homeless people in Vancouver. The ban on open flames and portable heating devices is intended to keep people living in tents safe and reduce the risk of fires.

The City of Vancouver said it recognizes that falling temperatures are leading people to take potentially dangerous measures to stay warm. More than 20 fires have been reported at Oppenheimer Park since February. 

The secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, Alex Neve, met with campers and Chrissy Brett at Oppenheimer Park last week. He said on social media after touring the park that 'solutions here must be consultative.' (Twitter/AkexNeveAmnesty)

Celine Mauboules, director of homelessness services at the city, said there is a city outreach team in the park daily working to connect about 50 people living there to housing and services.

She said anyone in the camp can also use the city's warming shelters, which open when the temperature reaches –5 C or below. 

"Shelter isn't housing, we recognize that," said Mauboules on The Early Edition Friday. "We are working on more permanent solutions with senior government.

"This is not just something the city can do alone, we do need support and partnerships".

Mauboules noted there is a zero per cent vacancy rate for apartments that can be afforded on a social assistance income of $760 per month.

Pedestrians walk by a tent at Vancouver’s City Hall in September. There is currently a zero per cent vacancy rate in the city for housing that can be afforded by people living on social assistance. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

She said city council recently approved use of the money collected from the empty homes tax to fund capital grants for new housing and will be opening new units this spring in a building on Vaness Avenue.

"It is a humanitarian crisis and it's tragic that in a country as wealthy as ours that people are having to sleep outside," said Mauboules.

Four overnight locations will be open on Thursday and Friday at the Britannia Community Centre, the Vancouver Aquatic Centre, Powell Street Getaway and the Overdose Prevention Society.    

With files from The Early Edition

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