Tent camp residents of Oppenheimer Park share their stories

Faces of homelessness

The night was cold for Jacob Stewart. He spent it in a tent at Vancouver's Oppenheimer Park.

He bundled himself in two sleeping bags.

“I try to stay positive, even though it’s cold,” he said, sitting in a chair eating a hotdog.

“I just think of work and stuff like that. I think about my family, my daughter. She lives in Chilliwack, and she’s going to school and she’s doing really good.”

Stewart, 51, is one of dozens of homeless people living in the Downtown Eastside park, which is at the centre of a political and community debate that rages on, with no end in sight.

It has now been one year since the first grouping of tents was pitched.

Police Chief Adam Palmer, who has highlighted the increase in police calls to the park related to violence, weapons seizures and gang activity, wants a court injunction to clear Oppenheimer.

Meanwhile, the number of campers appears to grow, with more than 100 tents and tarp-based shelters counted last week, including one used for a drug injection site and another big enough to store a car, only it serves as a church.

Stewart, a Nisga’a man whose hometown is 60 miles north of Terrace, has lived in the park for two months. He was previously in Edmonton, where he resided in a shelter for eight months, while working in construction.

He proudly said he hasn’t collected welfare for 15 years and came to Vancouver for work, only to get attacked in a McDonald’s restaurant by someone with a steel pipe. 

Mike Redpath has been homeless off and on for three years. He has lived in the park “intermittently” for six to eight months. 

Originally from Fort St. John, where he grew up on a farm, the trained gas fitter last paid rent in Kamloops, where he lived in a townhouse with his girlfriend.

Then, he said, he got into “a bit of an altercation” with the RCMP, which he claimed ended with an officer being charged with assault causing bodily harm.

“I ended up relapsing after that,” said Redpath, who described himself as a recreational drug user until he broke his back in a truck accident near Quesnel almost four years ago.

“The longer you stay alone on the street, the more hostility and resentment you build up,” he said.

“It starts being you against them, whereas once you start being part of the social interaction and the familial interaction on a regular basis, the more you start becoming human and become part of a community again — the more you start doing positive things. It really does seem to make a difference for people.”

Daniel Cameron, 27, has lived in the park off and on for almost a year. He doesn’t have a tent at the moment, saying he stays on the street or couch surfs, which makes it difficult for him to keep any belongings.

“To be honest, what you see on me is what I own,” he said.

Born and raised in Surrey, he used to install cedar fences and work at a pawn shop on Saturdays. He now unlocks smart phones and sells clothes and other items he finds in donation bins.

“I try to help people — give them what I find, or sell it for money,” he said.

Chrissy Brett, who lives off and on at Oppenheimer, disputes the police’s framing of the park as dangerous.

“Do you see any gang patches? Do you see any colours being repped here? Do you see any of these things that people are talking about? I don’t, and I’m here every day.”

Added Brett: “I say that Hastings Street and the alleys and camping out alone is way more unsafe and risky than being part of a community.”

What’s not commonly known by the public about the encampment is it has a hierarchy of sorts that was set up by campers, former campers and volunteers such as Brett.

During a tour of the park, Brett explained the park has a “mayor” and a seven-member “community council.” There is a safety committee in place, too, she said.

The park also has an injection site set up under a patchwork of tarps at the back of the field house. The “church” was built on the East Cordova Street-side of the park. Inside, it features a large carpet, a picture of Jesus Christ, a crucifix, a makeshift altar and a couple of chairs.

Campers say a pastor from a local church has begun to offer services on Sunday mornings.

Sandy Parisien is the “mayor” of the park, and he has been in that role since he first pitched a tent more than a year ago when he was part of “the original six” campers.

Outreach teams recently found Parisien housing at a single-room-occupancy hotel on Powell Street, which he described as “disgusting” and “the worst place ever.”

But, he said, he plans to be the last person to leave Oppenheimer, having gained the trust of campers to represent them.

Parisien is a member of the Berens River First Nation in Manitoba. As a child, he lived in group homes and children’s care homes, he said, before working his way west.

“It was bad,” he said. “I remember some of it, but not all of it. I just live every day now trying to help everyone else instead of myself. It’s easier to take from the community than it is to give back. I’ve got to give back now.”

Parisien’s fiancee, Amanda Whitefield, also found housing about a month ago, but keeps a tent in the park.

Originally from Vancouver Island, the 32-year-old said she once lived with a friend in the Tamura building on Dunlevy Avenue that overlooks the park. She got ill and ended up in hospital for six months, she said.

“I lost my place and my daughter while I was in there,” said Whitefield.

She came to Vancouver to attend Rhodes Wellness College on Howe Street, where she was working towards a professional counsellor diploma. Previously, she said, she taught yoga to at-risk youth.

She, too, uses the word “family” to describe the people in the park, saying, “We watch out for each other, and I don’t feel any more at risk being here since the day I showed up in the Downtown Eastside four years ago.”

What’s striking — but not surprising for people who read the city’s annual homeless count reports — is the overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples living in the park.

“Just like the institutions,” said Stanley Stump, standing outside his tent. “We had a jail that could hold 380 guys, and 210 of them were natives.”

Stump, a 47-year-old member of the Anahim Indian Band, spent 15 years of his life in prison.

All of it, he said, points back to the abuse he endured in residential school. He said he and his sister were the only children in his family to go, and the only two to end up with criminal records.

“The abuse was so common that by the time I got to regular school, I had such a high tolerance for pain that I could fight guys who were two grades older than me and win the fight — not by beating them up, but by getting beaten up so much that they’d get tired of beating me up,” he said.

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