Amongst the rubble and garbage strewn about the once-bustling 58 West Hastings homeless camp in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, less than a dozen campers still occupied fewer than half the tents still standing by late this week.
One camper carrying his backpack, a heavy chain with a lock round his neck, and one hand gripping an energy drink, the other a handful of sunflower seeds, said he doesn’t know what his next move will be. “I slept at the shelter for a few hours last night,” he said. “But I don’t know what to do. I’m leaving [the camp] today, though.”
The protest camp on the empty, city-owned lot started with just a few tents in July, and quickly grew to see about 100 people living there at its height. On Tuesday, the City began dismantling it.
City officials offered storage space for campers’ belongings and reserved 35 beds for individuals and couples at the Salvation Army’s nearby shelter. But many campers nonetheless face a difficult choice: go back to the shelter system they rejected by camping out to begin with, or cling to a spot in a rubbish-strewn lot that has lost its leadership and organization, and face the city’s warning to vacate.
About 20 people slept at the shelter on the first night after the camp was ordered to vacate, officials say. Half a dozen more have taken up the offer of storing their belongings. “It’s very disappointing,” said Laura Shaver, with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and one of the camp’s first residents and organizers.
Shaver said she stepped away from the camp because, as it grew, it became harder to organize, and people “didn’t seem into fighting for the cause.”
But shelter beds won’t help, she said. “There was couples in [the camp] because of the awful treatment they had in shelter,” Shaver said, which “forced [them] go back onto the street and thankfully into tent city.”
But last Friday, the city posted a notice to the campers that they would have to leave the site by noon on Oct. 25 — this past Tuesday. When city staff arrived on-site that day, there were still about two-dozen campers left.
‘Dispersed’ back to alleys and parks
The camp has been the source of some 65 calls to Vancouver police since it appeared, with four assaults reported and more than 20 calls for emergency responders, according to a City of Vancouver media release. Twice, the fire chief has ordered campers to remove fire hazards.
But the Vancouver Police Department said it’s hard to contextualize that number when “the VPD go to 700 calls each day,” said department spokesperson Sgt. Brian Montague.
“I can tell you that police were and continue to be at the site regularly to monitor what was and is going on, keep the peace, and to deal with some calls,” he said. “It appears that many of the tents on the site are vacant, and the conditions from a health perspective are very poor.”
City of Vancouver spokesperson Tobin Postma said they estimate between 10 to 20 people remain on the site at any one moment during the day or night.
“At this point we do not have an estimation on when the site will be cleared, but we will continue to be on site for the rest of the week to try and assist people who want to leave the site and go to a shelter or an alternative living situation that they have arranged,” he said, adding that one woman said she’d be moving back to Burnaby to live with her sister.
The city has reserved the Salvation Army beds until Nov. 1, when another 30 beds will open up specifically for the campers at a Portland Hotel Society facility at Orange Hall/Stanley New Fountain.
But not every camper is likely to take up that offer, either. According to VANDU’s Aiyanas Ormand, “a certain group of people dispersed back into other parks and alleys.”
Ormand agreed that conditions in the tent city had deteriorated, which is why most people are moving “without a fight.”
“They never managed to develop a sense of leadership,” Ormand says. “But on the other hand, it’s another example of the city covering up the problem rather than addressing it.”
Nor is the fact that city officials began dismantling the tent city during its Re:Address the City summit on solutions to affordable housing lost on VANDU’s Karen Ward.
“It’s really frustrating and troubling,” she said. “I think people are weighing their options and possibilities, and frankly there aren’t very many.”
Ward said the City is essentially turning the visible homeless into invisible homeless by pushing them into shelters.
“It’s just ridiculous having this week-long, super fancy discussion about housing, and the situation in the city is just getting worse and worse,” she said.