Preston Link has a bacterial infection in his legs that makes it hard for him to get around. He relies on a wheelchair, a walker and a lot of help from his girlfriend, Destiny Gosnell-Bugler.
But one morning in October, City of Vancouver sanitation workers took Link’s walker and wheelchair while Link and Gosnell-Bugler slept on the street. They’ve been able to get a replacement wheelchair, but still don’t have a walker for Link.
“They should be more respectful, instead of targeting against the homeless,” Bugler-Gosnell said. “It seems like some of them are so rude. The way they treat us is ridiculous.”
City workers accompanied by police officers “sweep” East Hastings Street in the Downtown Eastside several times a day, asking homeless people to move all their items off the street by 9 a.m. and ordering vendors who set up outside a lot at 58 W. Hastings to move their things in the early afternoon.
Sanitation workers remove anything considered to be a structure, but they’re not supposed to take people’s personal possessions and are only supposed to throw out items that have been abandoned.
But residents and community advocates say that’s not what happens. The Tyee has spoken to several people who live on East Hastings Street who have lost a long list of possessions: art supplies and art they made to sell, a tattoo gun, a bicycle, folding chairs, tents and all the clothing they owned.
Dave Dickson is a former police officer who worked in the Downtown Eastside for nearly 30 years and is now an outreach worker in the neighbourhood. He often speaks to Link, Gosnell-Bugler and the other members of their street family, some of whom he’s known for years.
Dickson said he was “flabbergasted” to hear that Link’s walker had been taken and logged the incident in his notes.
“These people are homeless: everything they own, they’re either sitting on or surrounded by and they try and keep it as tidy as they can,” he said.
“I get it, sometimes it does get messy. Their job is to clean it up, and I have no problem with that. But there’s gotta be some respect on both sides… and there isn’t, there’s a complete lack of respect.”
Taryn Scollard, director of streets for the city, said street crews do not remember taking a walker, but it’s possible it was scooped up if it was packed up with other items. Scollard said the city needs to keep sidewalks clear of belongings and tents so that other people can use them too.
But there is currently no place where homeless people can store their belongings and keep them out of the reach of the street sweeps, Scollard said, and all the items city crews take end up in the garbage. A few years ago, the city would temporarily store items, but Scollard said few people collected their things and there were problems with cleanliness.
Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart said his office will be reviewing the city’s policies for staff who work to keep public areas clear.
“When it comes to city staff removing and disposing of personal items, I’ve said before and I’ll say again that this should not be happening,” Stewart said in a statement, referring to previous reporting by The Tyee.
“COVID has put an immense stress on our frontline staff and every day their job gets harder to do. But at the same time, we need to always keep in mind that our most vulnerable neighbours simply cannot afford to lose important personal belongings.”
In December, Stewart offered a similar response.
“I know that senior staff are looking into this,” he told The Tyee, “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.”
Dickson is particularly concerned about the behaviour of one police officer who often accompanies the sanitation workers. He said he’s watched as the officer took milk crates people were sitting on. Another day, Dickson saw the same officer take a woman’s umbrella, even though she was telling the constable it belonged to her.
“I watched him walk away with it, and she was yelling at him, ‘That’s my umbrella,’” Dickson said, adding he’s complained to the Vancouver Police Department twice about the officer’s behaviour.
“There’s no reason whatsoever. There was no garbage pile there. It’s so unprofessional and disrespectful.”
Steve Addison, a media relations officer with the VPD, said in an email that “VPD officers have hundreds of interactions with Downtown Eastside residents every day, and it’s impossible for me to discuss specific anecdotes about those interactions. Fortunately, there is a robust system of civilian police oversight in B.C., and anyone who feels the police have acted improperly can complain to the Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner.”
Stewart said that if members of the public have concerns about police misconduct, they must file a report through the VPD’s complaint process.
“I urge community members to follow that process so that the [Vancouver Police] Board can do its job on oversight and insure Board policies are being adhered to,” he said in a statement. “The complaints process may also involve provincial agencies like the Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner, but the only way to trigger this official process is through an official complaint.”
The Tyee previously reported on the experience of Bill S., a homeless man whose tent was taken by city workers during a rainstorm in November when he didn’t move it by 9 a.m. Unable to find a replacement tent, he spent the next night in a makeshift shelter that let in the rain.
Sarah Blyth, the founder of the Overdose Prevention Society, said she and her staff regularly hand out new tents, bedding and clothing, only to see the items continually confiscated and dumped into garbage trucks. Earlier this week, Blyth photographed a city worker taking a bag of cans from a man while he slept on the street. Blyth said she assumed the man had collected the cans and planned to return them and make a bit of money.
“How that helps anyone I’m not sure... talk about being kicked while you are down,” she wrote on Twitter.
Blyth wants answers from the city and from the union that represents the sanitation workers, CUPE 1004, a local that also represents people who work at homeless shelters and overdose prevention sites.
“You’re dealing with a vulnerable population who are often near to dying,” Blyth said. She’d like to see city workers employed doing something else, like finding people housing, instead of taking away homeless people’s stuff day after day.
Andrew Ledger, the president of CUPE 1004, has previously said the sanitation workers are doing what city managers have asked them to do, and they would need different instructions from management to change how they do the job. Ledger declined to comment for this story.
Dickson said the relationship between police and people who live in the Downtown Eastside is at a low point, in part because of the way the street sweeps are being conducted.
There are police officers doing a good job in the neighbourhood, Dickson said, but he’s concerned that their safety and work is being undermined by other officers who escalate conflicts.
“There was a big fight at Main and Hastings a while back. I guess the officers had to arrest a couple of people that were fighting with knives in the middle of the intersection. A number of police showed up, and then the people on the sidewalk started throwing shit at (the officers),” Dickson said.
“The people are so fed up. It’s causing a lot more tension between the police officers and the people down here.”
Dickson said he witnessed an incident Friday on East Hastings near Abbott Street that shocked him. A police officer had yelled at a man to stop walking. When the man didn’t stop, another officer ran after the man and punched him in the face, “like a sucker punch,” Dickson said.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen that,” Dickson said. “It was completely uncalled for. I’m seeing more and more stuff like that, unprofessional behaviour.”