Advocates for the Downtown Eastside Street Market say it’s being unfairly painted as a hub for stolen goods, and that closing it down would be a disaster for low-income people who rely on buying and selling everything from sneakers, to DVDs, to chocolate bars and canned food.
The Vancouver Police Department held a press conference on Dec. 6 to reveal the results of a months-long “sting” operation involving undercover officers. Police said their investigation showed stolen goods are regularly flowing through the market and the unofficial street vending spots that pop up nearby.
The investigation resulted in multiple charges being laid against two men police allege are tied to large criminal networks responsible for an “epidemic” of property theft in downtown Vancouver.
Nezamoddin Jelali has been charged with three counts of possession of stolen property and one count of trafficking stolen property, while Aaron Castillo-Anguiano has been charged with three counts of possession of a controlled substance for the purpose of trafficking and two counts of possession of the proceeds of crime.
Police say they are unable to say whether the two accused were operating inside the city-funded Downtown Eastside market, which is set up in a vacant lot at 25 E. Hastings St., or outside the market on East Hastings Street, where vending also takes place, but is not controlled by market staff.
VPD Insp. Alison Laurin said the Downtown Eastside market has changed over several years, evolving from an “informal binners’ market” to “a place where criminal organizations have pushed their way in.” She also said the selling of stolen goods in the impoverished neighbourhood is “fuelling the epidemic of shoplifting and break-ins in the north half of the city.”
Vancouver Coun. Melissa De Genova suggested in an interview with Global News that “this could put an end to the Downtown Eastside Street Market.”
De Genova told The Tyee she doesn’t think the city should be funding the sale of stolen goods.
“We need better checks and balances, like the system for pawn shops, and we need to find a better way to support legitimate sales at the market,” she said. “There can be a market, but we need to end the sale of stolen goods.”
The Downtown Eastside Street Market receives $300,000 a year from the City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Community Network has a municipal contract to manage the market. According to city staff, that funding includes stipends for peer workers who staff the market.
Community advocates say the police press conference and the Global News video story that depicted the Downtown Eastside Street Market as being rife with stolen goods leave the wrong impression, and once again perpetuate harmful stereotypes about people living in poverty. In the Global News story, Laurin was shown walking inside the market and pointing out tables with goods that were likely stolen, but none of the vendors or market organizers were interviewed.
“It's really unfortunate, because it puts a really good community initiative in jeopardy and it saves people's lives in so many different ways,” said Sarah Blyth, the executive director of the Overdose Prevention Society.
Several years ago, Blyth was involved in running the market when it was located near 58 E. Hastings St.
“People go back to doing survival sex work, people will go back to doing all kinds of stuff if they don't have these types of avenues.”
Police say marginalized people who live in the Downtown Eastside are being recruited to shoplift or break into businesses to steal items, which are then moved through the local open-air markets. Many of the items then end up on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace, according to police.
Linda Lennie is a DTES resident who started vending in 2009 and now works at the Downtown Eastside Street Market. She said the police and the Global News story left the impression that the market has been taken over by organized crime, which is not the case.
“When the market first started, it took us a long time to get past that stigma of being a stolen goods market,” Lennie said. “Then we cleaned it up, and now they’re trying to put that stigma back on.”
Lennie said she and other staff at the market patrol the tables regularly, have a contraband list and ask people to leave if it appears they are selling stolen items. People are also not allowed to do drugs or sell drugs inside the market.
The market helps people who are on fixed incomes such as a pension or social assistance make some extra money, Lennie said, but more than that, it provides a safe place where people can get out of their tiny single-room occupancy hotel units and connect with other people.
“When I first started coming to the market, [it was] to get myself out of my depression, to get myself out of my room,” Lennie said. “A lot of the people are doing that now. They need social interaction just to get themselves out.”
Even though she has a job at the market, Lennie still struggles with the stresses of poverty. She recently became homeless after losing her housing, and now lives at the market site full time.
Antonio Macias, a vendor at the market, acknowledges stolen goods do show up, but said most of the problems are linked to the illicit drug trade and happen outside the market, on East Hastings Street.
“Many people, instead of doing drugs outside, they come in here to sell things, Macias said. “I think it’s a good thing, but [there are] bad things too, because people steal from big houses and bring here to sell for drugs.”
Overall, he still thinks the market is a positive thing for the neighbourhood and the city.
Constance Barnes, a former Vancouver parks board commissioner, was the director of the market in 2019 and early 2020, but the position was cut when the market — then located at 58 W. Hastings St. — was shut down for several months at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When it came to controlling the sale of stolen goods at the market, Barnes said she worked on prevention rather than enforcement. With police, she developed a system of marking items that were donated.
“We would stamp it with this little kind of a stamp... and then you could refer to the stamp in the blue binder and they could look and say, ‘OK, this is all donated,’” Barnes said.
Sometimes, people who had items stolen from their vehicle would come to the market in search of the goods, and Barnes said she was able to get vendors to return stolen items, adding the the problem was rooted in poverty and addiction.
“We had a good kind of collaborative way to deal with it, without it getting ugly, without having to call the police, and the product being returned,” Barnes said.
Both Barnes and Blyth said that when they ran the market, they were able to get donations of new items from the film industry, liquidators or other sources. They emphasized that just because items look new or clothing still has tags, that doesn’t mean they’re stolen.
Meanwhile, the market has yet to find a permanent location, having been relocated from site to site in the neighbourhood. The city has identified 525 Powell St. as a location the market can move to permanently in the next three to five years.
Considering the other problems the neighbourhood has been facing, Blyth said the way the market has been depicted is disappointing. The Downtown Eastside has been hit hard by the soaring number of overdose deaths in 2020 and 2021.
“We're living in COVID-19, we’re living with funerals happening every day, and people dying and desperate situations,” she said. “The real issue is poverty and people dying.”
Laurin said the VPD will now be working with the city and the Vancouver Community Network on the stolen goods problem.
“It is my hope that together, we’ll be able to weed out the criminal enterprises that have taken over much of the space in and around the market and restore it as a trading space for Downtown Eastsiders, as it was originally intended to be,” she said.