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'A broken system': Rangers stop volunteers from building tiny home in CRAB Park

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There were more than 20 centimetres of snow on the ground when a handful of volunteers walked into Vancouver's CRAB Park on Thursday, carrying two-by-fours and bags of insulation.

A man who spends his time building temporary structures for residents of a Prince George homeless encampment said he wanted to try it here—to make a point.

“There’s a broken system that is in play here that is increasing the problem of homelessness,” Brad Gustafson told a group of park rangers who were there to stop him, because doing so violates park control bylaws.

“That’s why we’re here. We’re trying to solve the problem,” he continued, in the speech posted online.

The bylaws in question—that building any structure in the park would violate—are park control bylaws 1(O), 11, 11A, 11B and 13, according to a Thursday statement from the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation.

Before construction of a tiny home in the park began, rangers confiscated one bag of insulation and two or three two-by-fours and took them away in a truck, the park board confirmed.

“It will pose safety hazards, contribute to the degradation of the parklands, and disrupt use of the park for the entire community,” the board said in its statement.

Gustafson described his actions as a “political and social protest.”

“I don’t like to throw shade at any single officer. You guys are all just doing your jobs and I applaud you for that,” he said.

“I want to make a point that we need to draw more attention to this and not less,” he continued. “What we’re trying to do is provoke the public, the government, society in general to rethink how we deal with the problem of homelessness.”

In the video, Gustafson tells park rangers that he’s going to take his bundle of two-by-fours into the encampment to demonstrate his point.

“I’m gonna go ahead, and if you guys want to arrest me that’s okay,” he says calmly.

It doesn’t appear he was arrested before or after rangers seized the building supplies. When asked by CTV News if they made any arrests, the Vancouver Police Department said in an email that officers were in the park to “standby and keep the peace”—at the Park Board’s request, as is typical during encampment actions—and made no mention of any issues arising.

“While we understand the desire to call attention to the homelessness crisis and its devastating impacts on individuals and communities, this type of action diverts park ranger attention from the important work of connecting with people and supporting all park users,” the park board statement continues.

It goes on to say that “protestors assert” a 2022 B.C. Supreme Court decision allows for tiny home structures in the park, but that “this is unfounded.”

The ruling protected campers from being evicted from the park when the park board requested an injunction so it could close the park and do remediation work. Afterwards, a designated area in CRAB Park was established where campers could stay full-time, instead of being required to pack up and leave during the day, which is the case in other Vancouver encampments.

“This was not required by the court and was done on a discretionary basis to support people who were physically unable to take down their structures each morning. The structures in this daytime area are subject to the bylaw requirements and operational safety guidelines for temporary structures,” the board said.

‘THE FAILURE OF THIS CITY TO HELP VULNERABLE PEOPLE’

Homeless advocate Sarah Blyth-Gerzak has been documenting the suffering of Vancouver's street homeless population during the cold snap and Wednesday's snowstorm, including people huddled in doorways and one hunched over in a wheelchair, calling it "the failure of this city to help vulnerable people in a crisis."

Blyth, in an interview Wednesday, questioned why the city is using its resources to confiscate the tents and belongings of homeless people camping in Oppenheimer Park. Instead, she said she wants to see the city put "more boots on the ground" and open up more 24-hour spaces in order to help get people in out of the cold

"They could do a lot of things. Instead they're taking people's stuff," Blyth-Gerzak said.

"I can tell you right now, with what's happening outside, there's no way that this is not going to be reflected in deaths," she also said.

The BC Coroners Service is investigating the deaths of 36 people outdoors between Jan. 1 and Jan. 16, the service said Wednesday. Meanwhile, BC Emergency Health Services says paramedics responded to 90 calls for hypothermia or frostbite province-wide between Jan. 5 and Jan. 16.

A recent report from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control says cases of hypothermia and frostbite among people who are homeless have been "increasing in all regional health authorities over the past decade, and especially the past two years."

Being exposed to cold temperatures and snowy or wet conditions for prolonged periods of time is the main risk factor for hypothermia and other cold-related injuries, the BCCDC says, adding that other risk factors render people more vulnerable, such as substance use, disability, and diseases like diabetes.

"(People experiencing homelessness) are often coping with more than one of these risk factors, further compounded by prevalent issues such as malnourishment and inadequate winter clothing, and as a result (they) are often most at-risk of death or injury during cold weather," the report says.

The 2023 Metro Vancouver homeless count found 4,821 people who had no place to live in the region – a 32 per cent increase since 2020. The number of people "unsheltered" and living on the streets, in a vehicle, in a tent or other makeshift structure rose from 1,029 to 1,461. The Homelessness Services Association of B.C. said the totals in its report represented an "absolute minimum number of people" who were homeless in the region on the day of the count.

Deaths among British Columbians experiencing homelessness have risen dramatically in recent years, a report published last year by the BC Coroners Service revealed.

At least 342 homeless people died in 2022. Between 2015 and 2020, the annual average was 143 deaths. For the past two years, the average count more than doubled to 305.

With files from CTV News Vancouver's Penny Daflos and Lisa Steacy

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