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Municipal Politics

Flyers Threaten Homeless People in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

The widely distributed notices threaten to burn down tents and a safe injection site.

Jen St. Denis 16 Aug

Jen St. Denis is The Tyee’s Downtown Eastside reporter. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

People who live on Vancouver’s East Hastings Street are on edge after being targeted with flyers threatening to burn their tents and possessions if homeless people don’t leave the area in seven days.

People who live in tents below 138 E. Hastings St., a condo and social housing building near Hastings and Main, say they were showered with the hateful flyers on Sunday evening.

Trey Helten, the manager of the Overdose Prevention Society, said on Twitter that the same notices were thrown out of a car on East Hastings on the weekend.

Police say they have received reports of the notices and are investigating.

“Tents and belongings on sidewalks will be burned with gasoline and propane canisters,” the notice reads. It also says Insite, a safe injection site that has operated in the neighbourhood since 2003, will be the “first building to be burned down.”

“Residents that live in the area will not you to destroy our community any longer with your selfish,” it says. (The quote is verbatim.)

Kristy Wilson, who lives in a tent on the street in front of 138 E. Hastings St., said police need to take the threat seriously.

It comes three weeks after a man shot several people in Langley, several of whom had been homeless or previously homeless. On July 25, a woman suffered serious burns after being set on fire in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood.

“The cops need to take that note seriously and figure out where it came from, or they’re going to have to get us out of here in a week,” said Wilson.

Tents on East Hastings Street on a sunny summer day.
Tents on East Hastings Street in Vancouver. People who are living on the street have been threatened with violence if they don’t leave. Photo by Jen St. Denis.

The BC Green Party said the threats were “despicable” and needed to be taken seriously.

The City of Vancouver said in a statement that “the threat of arson in the Downtown Eastside is unacceptable.”

“The city condemns these threats in the strongest possible terms,” it said. “Threats or acts of violence, arson or aggression in any area of the city for any reason is unacceptable. The city has forwarded this to VPD for investigation.”

And after The Tyee shared the flyer with Mayor Kennedy Stewart, his staff tweeted that the threats were “reprehensible and won’t be tolerated.”

The flyers are being distributed in the midst of a push to clear East Hastings Street of the tents and belongings of homeless people. The Vancouver fire department issued an order to clear tents and structures because of the risk of fire.

The number of tents on East Hastings between Main Street and Columbia Street has grown over the past year, in part because several alleys and vacant lots where people used to gather are now part of new social housing developments.

But the numbers grew when Vancouver police stopped accompanying city sanitation crews on daily patrols to clear garbage.

Residents and advocates had been protesting the “street sweeps” for over a year, because sanitation workers frequently threw out tents, bedding and other personal belongings of homeless people.

There have also been an unusually high number of fires displacing tenants in the Downtown Eastside over the spring and summer, starting with the fatal Winters Hotel fire in April which killed two tenants. Fires have also caused displacement at a building that housed Street Church right beside the vacant Balmoral Hotel, and an SRO at 566 Powell St. The high number of fires have led some residents to question whether an arsonist is operating in the vulnerable neighbourhood.

Sarah Blyth, the executive director of the Overdose Prevention Society, said it’s common for her to get disturbing messages about homeless people on her cell phone.

“People will call me, screaming at me,” said Blyth, who frequently gives media interviews about the overdose crisis and homelessness in the neighbourhood.

“One woman called to tell me, with all her anger, that she was coming down here to teach people how to be,” Blyth said.

After news coverage of the city’s order to remove tents and structures on East Hastings, Blyth said she’s noticed an increase in people coming to the neighbourhood to take photos and videos for their own social media accounts.

It’s a practice that dehumanizes people who are dealing with problems like poverty, mental illness and addiction, Blyth said.

“They think because it’s in the media, they want to be part of it,” Blyth said. “People think they can just come and film people who are living in terrible conditions.”  [Tyee]

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