By building communication and trust with the former residents of the Strathcona Park encampment, the Vancouver Park Board has demonstrated a significant and positive shift as to how city park staff approach those experiencing houselessness

The Vancouver Park Board has underscored the power of investing in deep relationships in its initiative to establish its role as community liaison among encampment residents, partner organizations, neighbours, and nearby businesses.

Donnie Rosa, General Manager of the Vancouver Park Board and BCRPA president, said they learned more through the decampment process than any course or training could provide. Park Board staff, for instance, came to recognize that what may be perceived as discarded objects in the park may actually be people’s belongings, and learned the importance of being mindful of the words and references encampment residents use.

“I’ve recently changed from [using the term] homelessness to houselessness because it was pointed out to me that many of the folks living in the encampment were Indigenous and this actually was their home more than it was mine or more than it was most of the folks working there,” Rosa explained during a BCRPA session about the Strathcona Park decampment. “They were not without a home; they were without a house.”

Handling the delicate process of moving what is essentially a small neighbourhood into indoor housing required trauma-informed practices.

Vancouver Park Board’s Director of Park Operations Amit Gandha explains the organization’s approach is based on harm reduction within a framework of reconciliation.

“The experience of Strathcona Park highlighted very clearly that the principles of harm reduction, decolonization, compassion, patience, and cultural safety can and should underpin this work,” Gandha said. “When these values guide both planning and operations, rehousing processes is less traumatic and less confrontational for all involved.”

At the peak of the encampment, the park board estimated there were nearly 400 tents or structures in Strathcona Park, though that doesn’t reflect the number of people residing in the encampment as couples lived in some tents, other tents were for storage, and some tents were abandoned.

A cluster of tents in Strathcona Park, with trees and blue sky in the background
More than 280 people were moved out of Strathcona Park and into housing. Photo via the Vancouver Park Board

The Vancouver Park Board points out that over the winter months, safety concerns were building as the park deteriorated and risks arose. Hazards, like propane tanks, could be removed only to show up again. Then as the rainy weather rolled in around late October, water began to pool in the park’s terrain and keeping dry proved challenging.

“It was becoming more apparent that safety was going to get worse, and we needed to get people into housing,” Gandha said. In the meantime, parks staff needed to implement temporary measures to keep residents warm and dry.

In the Spring of 2021, the process of dismantling the Strathcona Park encampment began to wrap up as the Park Board, along with the City of Vancouver and BC Housing, moved hundreds of people living in the park into indoor housing.

Building relationships

While the Park Board’s values of harm reduction, trauma-informed responses, reconciliation, and collaboration were clear, upholding these values within colonial systems wasn’t easy, Rosa said.

These values may look like relying on social workers rather than police or having Park Board staff participate in a ceremonial fire protocol led by Indigenous Elders when entering the encampment.

The Park Board held regular meetings with encampment residents, but as people living in the park had important stories to share with park staff, meetings didn’t follow a set schedule.

“That’s not how we work. We go from meeting to meeting to meeting,” Rosa said. “As colonizers, but also as the institutions we represented, and we needed to hear it, we needed to spend that time.”

While parks staff are often trained in areas like recreation, natural resource management, or landscape architecture rather than social work or community development, Rosa said that staff may feel ill-equipped to respond to houselessness.

Thus, doing the work thoughtfully requires flexibility with structure and timelines. “We need to support each other in saying, it’s okay to take this approach, it’s okay to put somebody’s wellness ahead of a deadline,” Rosa said.

The Park Board established a line of communication by holding meetings in the park on a regular basis and ensuring information was being shared. The staff listened to residents and worked to address the concerns of those living in the encampment.

An open grassy area of Strathcona Park with trees in the distance
In October 2021, the east side of Strathcona Park reopened to the public. Photo via the City of Vancouver

The daily interactions were essential to building relationships with residents. When conflicts arose, Gandha said the crux of the issue was often unmet needs or miscommunication.

Both Rosa and Gandha emphasized the necessary shift in approach to houselessness going forward.

“Without the relationship part, the operational part would have been impossible,” Rosa said.

Internal teams agreed to educate and support encampment residents rather than enforce and remove them, while staff were monitoring and re-evaluating the situation.

Gandha said “Working together in a good way means operating from an understanding that individuals experiencing homelessness are not the problem. The problems are the structural barriers and systematic inequities that create conditions for homelessness in the first place.”

As a testament to its approach, the Vancouver Park Board has created a new position, the Director of Urban Relationships. As noted in the 2022 Canadian City Park report, it’s a first-of-its-kind role in Canada that will focus on building relationships with encampment residents and community partners.

Rosa said the new role demonstrates what the park board is striving for and having dedicated staff with the right expertise takes the weight off the parks operations team who are typically tasked with responding to houselessness issues.

More than 280 people were moved indoors from Strathcona Park by the end of the decampment process, and the park reopened to the public in October 2021.

Read about other transformative experiences parks departments across the country have had in addressing houselessness in “A Human Centred Approach to Houselessness,” one of the in-depth stories included in the 2022 Canadian City Parks report.

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