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Police crack down on Downtown Eastside street disorder

Over the past two weeks, Vancouver police officers have been cracking down on street disorder in the Downtown Eastside by handing out tickets for everything from illegal vending and riding a bicycle on the sidewalk to jaywalking and spitting.

The normally chaotic makeshift market that takes up a half-block at the corner of East Hastings and Carrall has been deserted at times as police officers hand out tickets and arrest vendors with outstanding warrants.

Downtown Eastside residents and bottle binners often use the block to sell found or stolen goods. Drug dealers also operate in the dense crowd. But while the market certainly exists on the opposite side of the law, many of the vendors feel the ticket blitz is vindictive.

“I’m just trying to feed myself,” said Dawn, who was selling assorted hair care products on a blanket and received a ticket for “displaying merchandise on the sidewalk.”

“It’s better than robbing people. I found this stuff in the dumpster and I’m trying to do something positive. But the cops are a bunch of vultures who keep harassing us all the time.”

The makeshift market on East Hastings popped up a few years ago after the police broke up the Main and Hastings open drug market. While drug dealers still have a presence outside the Carnegie Community Centre, some moved down the street and the vendors, who had been previously been scattered, began to concentrate in the area.

Vancouver Police Department spokesperson Const. Tim Fanning confirmed that the police are focusing their resources on street disorder in the neighbourhood in order to make the “community more liveable.”

“Often we warn people before we give a ticket out,” said Fanning, who could not say how many tickets had been handed out. “Anybody that has ever got a ticket for street vending has probably got at least one warning before. I’d say we’re very good that way.”

The VPD’s 2008 Business Plan promised a decrease in street disorder this year by increasing the number of tickets given out under the Safe Streets Act and Trespass Act by 20 per cent.

However, many in neighbourhood complain that they can’t afford the bylaw fines, which range from $100 for jaywalking and riding a bicycle on the sidewalk to $250 for vending without a business licence.

“How am I going to pay a $100 ticket when I’m on social assistance,” said David Napio, who said he received two tickets for jaywalking and one for spitting in the past week. “There wasn’t a car on the street [when I jaywalked]. I’m not that stupid. The cops need to use some discretion.”

But Fanning said street disorder is the “thin edge of the wedge,” and if the police allow bylaw infractions to continue it could escalate into a “mess.” He added that the police must enforce the law regardless of a person’s income.

“We can’t do an economic assessment of everybody we’re giving a ticket to,” said Fanning. “If we went by [that] logic, we’d only give tickets to people who were driving Mercedes.”

Still, many in the neighbourhood see the crackdown as part of an escalation against Downtown Eastside residents in the lead up to the Olympics.

This past summer, police handed out tickets to homeless people for camping in Oppenheimer Park and have intermittingly given out tickets to vendors and homeless people around Hastings and Carrall. Police have either locked their belongings away in a large white shipping container at the corner of Hastings and Carrall or thrown them in a dump truck.

Kim Kerr, executive director of the Downtown Eastside Residents Association (DERA), whose offices are at Hastings and Carrall, said he suspects the police are trying to push people away from the Carrall Street Greenway, a $5 million project which is supposed to connect the Downtown Eastside with the city’s Seawall. Kerr claimed he’s seen the police give jaywalking tickets to people crossing the construction area at Carrall and Hastings.

“They’re ramping security up in a big way,” he said.

Gregor Robertson, who officially becomes Vancouver’s mayor and chair of the police board on Monday, said he plans to “send a strong signal” to the VPD” that officers should focus on violent crime and the hard drug trade, and not jaywalking and spitting.

“The real solution is to create a community that provides adequate affordable housing, detox facilities, mental health services, and job opportunities, in the DTES and across the city,” Robertson wrote in an email response. “We can’t ticket our way out of our problems.”

Robertson said he and Vision councillor George Chow are looking into the idea of starting an organization like Cheapskates in the Downtown Eastside were “reusable goods that are retrieved can be cleaned, repaired and be sold or exchanged in the community.”

Sean Condon is the editor of Megaphone Magazine.

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