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Vancouver park rangers face trauma, addiction, homelessness, on the job

City councillors and park board commissioners set to consider increasing funding for rangers

Vancouver park ranger Sherlan John searches for used needles at a playground in Andy Livingstone Park.

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Jennifer Gauthier / for Metro

Vancouver park ranger Sherlan John searches for used needles at a playground in Andy Livingstone Park.

As Vancouver city council and park board consider whether to increase the park ranger budget or not, the city’s head park ranger says his job has changed drastically in the face of overdose and housing affordability crises.

“Rangers used to do bike patrol on the Stanley Park Seawall and direct tourists to the aquarium,” said Chad Cowles, superintendent of citywide services at the park board.

“Now, they are essentially social workers connecting homeless people living in parks with support services. The job has changed drastically in the past seven years.”

Metro spoke with Cowles at Andy Livingstone Park, a hot spot for conflict between the neighbourhood’s condo-dwellers and those who sleep in makeshift tents in the soccer field. Clean-up crews pick up about 100 needles every day at the park and many are found in the playground next to Crosstown Elementary, where parents have raised concerns about their children’s safety.

Park rangers do their best to balance public safety with everyone’s human rights, including those who do not have a home and those struggling with addiction, said Cowles.

But it’s a lot to ask of the park board’s 50 rangers, who are responsible for patrolling Vancouver’s 140 parks.

“At times, this job feels like somebody is using a garbage can lid to hold back a typhoon,” he said.

“We feel like as soon as we bend our elbows, the whole Downtown Eastside will be taken over.”

As a result, almost all of the park ranger resources are spent in the Downtown Eastside, a neighbourhood the rangers call ‘the vortex.’

Every morning, rangers assigned to parks in the Downtown Eastside wake up people sleeping in tents and send them on their way. At Andy Livingstone, the average is about 15 ‘wake ups’ a day, said park rangers Daniel Wong and Sherlan John.

At Oppenheimer Park, the number has been closer to 30, lately.

Rangers like Wong and John try to take a soft approach when encouraging homeless people to pack up in the mornings. They know many of them by name and are often the ones to connect them with support services. At times, it’s about getting them ID so they can collect their welfare cheque. Other times, it’s about finding them a dry pair of socks.   

Dealing with addiction, mental health, and homelessness exposes the rangers to some of the same stressors that first-responders like police, firefighters, and paramedics experience.

“We don’t ask ourselves if it's fair, it just is,” said Cowles.

But some rangers experience burnout or need help processing the trauma they see everyday, he said.

“We’ve really had to be mindful of creating policies that encourage resiliency. We implemented mandatory debriefing after every shift for staff to share if they experienced something that was traumatic, that caused them sadness or pain or harm.”

Rangers are also limited to three-hour shifts at Andy Livingstone Park and have access to mental health support services if they need it, he added.

While the opioid and homeless crisis rages on, rangers are still responsible for taking care of the old standbys like writing tickets for off-leash dogs and smoking in parks.

Those who need to take a step back go to quieter parts of the city, like Queen Elizabeth Park, where the park board runs a junior-ranger program, said Cowles.

“That’s reprieve – that’s where we send rangers who need a break from the Downtown Eastside.”

Coun. George Affleck and Comm. John Coupar plan to present parallel motions at city council and park board meetings next week, asking the city to allocate more funding to the park ranger program due to concerns about used needles in parks.

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