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A day in the life at Oppenheimer Park’s homeless camp | CBC News

In the heart of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, at least 100 people are living in tents at Oppenheimer Park located between Powell and Cordova streets, two blocks east of Main Street.

Each resident of the park has a unique story about how they ended up homeless and what they plan to do next. This is a day in the life of one of these residents, 51-year-old Stephen James Robinson who goes by the name “Red.”

Meet Stephen James Robinson, nicknamed “Red” because of his red hair. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Waking up in the zone. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

It’s 9 a.m. and Red wakes up in his “zone” — which consists of two tents and all his belongings — to the sounds of garbage trucks and angry neighbours. 

A city worker throws a bike into the back of a truck. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Two fire marshalls inspect inside a tent. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Red says he’s afraid to leave his tent to go to the bathroom or to eat breakfast because he may return to find all his possessions have vanished. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Every day, workers from the city’s Transient Crew along with members of the fire department accompanied by members of the Vancouver Police Department come to the park to inspect the park for fire hazards.

On Thursdays, the inspection is thorough. They arrive with garbage trucks and pickup trucks and spend hours throwing away any items that are deemed a fire hazard or simply unattended. 

Fire marshalls and member of the VPD discover an unattended motorized bike inside one of the tents. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

City worker uses a pitch fork to push an entire tent into a garbage truck. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

According to Fiona York, coordinator and administrator for the Carnegie Community Action Project, weekly city inspections cost the city over $100,000. She questions why this money isn’t spent creating housing. 

Red begins to clean up his tent for inspection. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Red has lived in Oppenheimer Park for two months, but has been homeless off and on since he was 35 years old. Over the years, Red has come to know many of the city workers and developed a good rapport with them. Even so, he knows he must clean up his tent to avoid having everything taken away.

Red cleans up his space on a daily basis. He also cleans up most spaces he visits in the Downtown Eastside, picking up litter and abandoned items or raking urban soiled areas to clean away dead brush. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Red throws garbage into a bin. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Red says he doesn’t like living in the park but that he feels he has no choice at the moment. He has been homeless for so long that “sometimes it feels weird to be inside.”

Like many people living in the park and on the streets in Vancouver, Red says there isn’t a single factor that led to his current circumstances. He says it has been a combination of many events including an old hip injury and a home invasion. But now that he is here, he is trying to make the best of it. 

There are more than 100 people living in tents in Oppenheimer Park. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Even so, Red finds joy in the little things. As he cleans up his tent he finds a piece of missing jewlery and gets excited at the discovery that it was not lost forever. 

Red finds a grasshopper. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

He also comes across a grasshopper and spends some time admiring the little creature.

Red is not afraid of pushing buttons and likes to make other people laugh. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Red sits in his garden. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Red finds joy in what he calls “urban recovery” which involves tidying pretty much any city space he comes across. His favourite piece of urban recovery is his garden. 

Stuffed owl sits in a branch on Red’s garden. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Red says the garden is a little damaged, “just like all of us.” (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

A horse shoe hangs upside down in the garden. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Red puts sparkling plastic stars in a small tree. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Stew from the City of Vancouver’s Urban Issues Crews has known Red for the past 15 years and says he has “met so many good people out of this horrible situation”. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Red adds more items to the garden as he awaits inspection. It takes several hours for the city workers to get to his tent and when they do they greet him by name. 

Red speaks with the clean up crew. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Red sits proudly in his tidy tent. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Once the workers arrive, they inspect Red’s area and throw away one mattress. Overall, Red is pleased that he passed inspection with flying colours due to his three-hour clean-up.  

It’s 1 p.m. and the inspection is over so Red can leave his tent to go get lunch. 

On the way to lunch, Red stops for a snack at a blackberry bush on the side of the street. He says he stops here every day to eat berries and also do a bit of urban recovery. There is dead brush on the ground that he clears to reveal soil beneath. 

Cheers! (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Across the street from the berries is the Evelyn Saller Centre on Alexander Street where Red enjoys most of his meals. Conveniently for Red, most of the places he needs to go today are within a few blocks from each other.

Red drinks from a glass of milk. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

In Red’s words, he is a “very animated character.” (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

In the cafeteria at the Evelyn Saller Centre, meals are only $2. Today’s lunch features burritos with rice, sour cream, salsa, a fruit cup, slaw, soup, coffee, apple juice and water. The cost of the food is charged to his account on file that is connected to his disability funds. This allows Red to come here for breakfast, lunch, and dinner most days (when he isn’t watching his tent).

Red leaving the Carnegie Centre Outreach. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

After lunch, Red visits the Carnegie Centre Outreach where he picks up a copy of his Canadian citizenship, ID that he needs in order to apply for assistance such as housing services. 

Red uses his computer and phone mainly for entertainment such as watching YouTube or listening to music. He says that being homeless is really boring, so having access to entertainment is a treat. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Red takes this document over to Orange Hall on East Hastings Street to check in on his housing placement and charge his electronics.

Julie Anderson goes in for a fist bump. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Julie Anderson works at Orange Hall which offers services such as providing secure and affordable accommodation for Vancouver tenants. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

As Red uses the outlet in the lounge to charge his electronics, Julie Anderson, a team assistant at Orange Hall, comes to pay a visit. Julie and Red first met while playing on the same rugby team have known each other for over 30 years. 

Anderson and Red joke back and forth outside Orange Hall on Hastings Street. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

When asked where Red is on the housing “list,” Anderson explains that’s a common misconception. There is actually a sophisticated database that lists each person’s individual needs and how those might be best paired with available housing. 

Red walks past the sign at Crab Park in Vancouver. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

When asked if she has any advice for people struggling with homelessness, she urges people to get connected to resources like Orange Hall. If they don’t, they’re invisible to helping agencies and therefore more vulnerable. 

Red says goodbye to Anderson and heads north. He has decided he needs an escape from the streets so he heads to Crab Park.

Red sits on a log at the beach. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Red says he much prefers the beach to the streets. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

He says he once lived on the beach under an umbrella for six  weeks. During that time he would clean away the large rocks to reveal the beach sand underneath — some of his proudest urban recovery work. 

Red waves goodbye at the end of the day. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

After the beach, Red will go back to the Evelyn Saller Centre. He has to arrive before 5:50 p.m. when the doors close. There, Red will have dinner and then enjoy some TV and indoor activities such as bingo.

At 11 p.m., when the centre closes, he’ll head back to his home in Oppenheimer Park. 

As Red waves goodbye, he says he would like the public not to be afraid to come visit him in Oppenheimer Park and say hello. 


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