Myrtle lives right across from Oppenheimer Park in the Downtown Eastside. When it’s hot, her room becomes unbearable, so on Saturday she was standing outside on the sidewalk as cars and trucks passed by on busy Córdova Street.
This weekend, a searing heat wave gripped western Canada, pushing temperatures to record highs. On Saturday, it was 32 C in the shade in the Downtown Eastside, a part of the city that gets hotter than other neighborhoods because there aren’t as many shade trees.
It is also the poorest neighborhood in the city, where many residents are homeless or live in substandard housing. Residents of the Downtown Eastside often have chronic health problems, a disability, or use substances.
The park board announced Monday that it would finally open the west side of the park, after neighborhood advocates took to social media to ask the park to open up the green space. The block-long patch of trees and grass has been hemmed in behind a tall blue fence for more than a year, ever since a large tent city that had been in the park for two years was removed in May 2020. .
“Look at all that shadow!” Myrtle exclaimed, looking across the street to the park. She said that she would normally go sit on a bench in the park when it’s hot. On the sidewalk outside her building, there is nowhere for her to sit.
When the tent city was located in the park, from 2018 to 2020, he stopped going there because he was afraid of the frequent violence that happened, which included murder, assault and sexual assault.
“I think they should leave the fence up,” he said. “I think they should have security to say the park is open until now, and then ‘everyone has to go home.'”
Park board manager Donnie Rosa previously told The Tyee that after the tent city was removed through a provincial public safety order last year, it took a long time to repair damage to the park. ground and grass. The lodge, which houses the park’s restrooms, was vandalized a few months later and will need extensive repairs.
Since April, park board staff have been working with community groups like the Carnegie Community Center Association, the Downtown Eastside Women’s Center and the Aboriginal Front Door to implement a plan to open the park so everyone can use it safely. The parks board planned to open the west side of the park by June 29, Rosa said, but decided to open it a day earlier than planned because of the heat wave.
Advocates questioned that decision, saying keeping the park closed all weekend could have serious health consequences.
Central Eastside resident and neighborhood advocate Karen Ward took to social media Friday to call out the parks board and the city for keeping the park closed.
“This is an acute health issue,” he told the park board, asking other social media users to amplify his call to open the park.
Sarah Blyth, executive director of the Overdose Prevention Society, said keeping the park closed could have serious health consequences.
“Closing down a park, having people lying on the concrete as an alternative could be lethal,” he told The Tyee.
“We have to think about these situations where we may not understand those consequences, but it’s absolutely something that could happen.”
Rosa said that as much as she would have liked to open the park sooner, park board staff were committed to working with community partners to make sure that when the park did open, it had the services and programming to make it happen. be safe and welcome to all.
Blyth said she and other Overdose Prevention Society staff and volunteers had given out 6,000 bottles of water over the weekend and plan to give out 3,000 more on Monday, so she hired more people from the community to distribute water today. When PAHO staff go out with carts full of water bottles, “people come running,” Blyth said. “They are desperate for water.” Blyth said an emergency center in a building operated by the Atira Women’s Resources Society that has been open since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic has been key to being able to store enough water and other supplies for the heat emergency.
Blyth said Oppenheimer Park needs to be open to help get people out of the suffocating concrete.
That’s not just for the safety of the homeless, but also for people who live in older buildings and single room occupancy hotels in the neighborhood. SROs are older buildings that tend not to be well insulated, meaning they are cold in the winter and very hot in the summer. “It’s excruciating to be inside,” Blyth said. “They take heat like you cook.”
In a news release, the park board said that while the lodge is closed for repairs, staff will set up a bathroom trailer and office on the site to provide space for Carnegie Community Center staff.
Carnegie’s Oppenheimer Park team will host programming at the park, including arts and crafts, music, beverages and monitoring of park patrons, according to the park board.
This article was originally published on The Tyee, an independent, reader-supported online news magazine based in BC Click here for more original and detailed reports and register for our free daily newsletter.