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‘The Job of the City Is to Get People Shelter, Not Take It Away’

Vancouver’s mayor says city workers shouldn’t throw homeless people’s belongings away. But workers say those are their orders.

Jen St. Denis 8 Dec 2020TheTyee.ca

Jen St. Denis is The Tyee’s Downtown Eastside reporter. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

Vancouver’s mayor says city sanitation workers are not supposed to be throwing homeless people’s tents away, but the union that represents the employees says workers need clearer direction from the city if things are going to change.

“The job of the city is to get people shelter, not to take it away,” Mayor Kennedy Stewart told The Tyee.

“I know that senior staff are looking into this and I’ll be following up with them first of all to see the rate at which this occurs, and secondly what we can do to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

On Nov. 26, The Tyee reported on one man’s experience having his tent and everything in it taken away after city workers told him to move his stuff.

Bill S. was able to find a replacement sleeping bag, but no tent — so the next night he woke up in the middle of a puddle when the makeshift shelter he’d tried to construct failed to keep the rain out.

Sarah Blyth, the founder of the Overdose Prevention Society in the Downtown Eastside, told The Tyee what happened to Bill wasn’t really news, because city workers take away homeless people’s belongings all the time.

Andrew Ledger, the president of the union that represents city sanitation workers, agreed that the situation isn’t ideal, but he said workers are acting at the direction of the city.

“I wouldn’t say we’re forcibly removing things, that’s not the case, but it’s not just unwanted debris that gets removed,” Ledger, the president of CUPE 1004, previously told The Tyee.

“It could be someone’s life in a shopping cart that they’ve left somewhere, and all of a sudden it gets removed — those are the instructions that our members are given.”

Considering that there are fewer places for homeless people to go because of COVID-19 restrictions, Ledger said it was “questionable” for the city to continue enforcing its bylaws against people who are homeless.

After The Tyee published the story, city councillors Christine Boyle and Jean Swanson contacted Ledger, and deputy city manager Paul Mochrie also got in touch.

“City bylaws are intended to maintain a safe and accessible path of travel along sidewalks and maintain a relative level of cleanliness for all residents,” Boyle wrote to The Tyee in an email.

“Where this comes into direct conflict with a right and need to have someone sleep, or a compassionate approach to the belongings of homeless neighbours, we all need to put our heads together and find the right balance. And to do so in a way that respects the dignity of those in our city without a home, as well as the dignity of our hardworking outside staff.”

Swanson said she’s asked city staff to come up with some improvements.

“I think there are things we can do like tag tents before they are moved to warn the resident, give receipts for things that are taken, advertise that you can retrieve stuff and where to get it,” Swanson wrote in an email to The Tyee, adding that “the real solution is housing.”

Ledger says that if the mayor wants sanitation workers to change how they do their job, there need to be different instructions from management.

“The instructions that our members get are: clear debris,” Ledger said. “It doesn’t really stipulate not touching tents or anything of that nature, so if things are left abandoned, they’re collected and disposed of.”

Ledger suggested adding housing advocacy workers to the crews that go out — people who could help unhoused people get connected with shelter and available housing.

“That would be a really positive move that would change the tone of the work that is happening in the Downtown Eastside,” he said.  [Tyee]

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