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‘It’s Like They’re Trying to Discard Us’

Vancouver continues to push campers off East Hastings Street. They say there is nowhere else to go.

Jen St. Denis 5 Dec 2022TheTyee.ca

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

People who are homeless on Vancouver’s East Hastings Street continue to have tents and other belongings removed by city workers, a situation advocates say is leaving some without shelter as temperatures drop.

PHS Community Services Society, an agency that runs permanent and emergency winter shelters and other housing, says space is extremely tight right now, with people turned away every night from two shelters the organization runs in the Downtown Eastside.

“We have to explore everything to get shelter for people — it’s hard to kick people out into the cold,” said Tanya Fader, PHS’s director of housing.

In July, Vancouver’s fire chief ordered tents removed from the sidewalks, citing the risk of fires.

Ryan Sudds, an organizer with the Stop the Sweeps coalition, said that has led to a months-long cycle of repeated displacement. Sudds, who has repeatedly observed and filmed interactions between city workers, police and homeless people on the street, said many people told to leave East Hastings Street are simply moving to other sidewalks in the Downtown Eastside.

“The UN protocol on how to deal with encampments says people’s wishes and wills need to be respected, and the government needs to be providing solutions based on their demands,” Sudds said.

“No one’s demanding to be evicted off Hastings with no place to go.”

Sudds recorded another burst of activity on Nov. 29, the same day Metro Vancouver was hit with the first winter snowstorm of the season. Several people had their belongings taken by city workers and police, while others went from East Hastings to other sidewalks after being told to move.

Sudds said he spoke to four residents outside the closed Regent Hotel SRO. Two of the people were in the process of having their tent confiscated by city workers accompanied by police. All said they had not been offered housing, he said. The Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users posted Sudd’s video of the incident on Twitter.

Sudds said the two other residents were intimidated by the presence of police and were planning to move off of East Hastings to avoid being hassled.

The city confirmed that tents and other belongings were removed on Nov. 29, after repeated warnings to the occupants that the items were blocking the sidewalk and doors.

Contrary to what residents told Sudds, the city says people were given shelter options before their tents or shelters were removed.

Two men in yellow reflective safety vests stand on an icy sidewalk outside a blue tent.
City workers speak to a tent city resident about a fire safety issue. Photo for The Tyee by Jen St. Denis.

The city has been trying to deal with the tent city on East Hastings since the summer, when the fire department issued a dire warning that the number of tents and belongings on the street was creating a serious fire hazard. The encampment is concentrated in the heart of the Downtown Eastside, on East Hastings between Carrall and Main.

The situation on East Hastings developed after news coverage and complaints about the practice of daily street sweeps, where city workers and police would tell homeless people to remove their belongings. If people didn’t comply, their tents and other belongings would be tossed into a truck with a pitchfork and thrown away.

Homeless people were repeatedly losing all their clothing, bedding and shelter, as well as irreplaceable items like photographs and ashes of loved ones.

After denying for months that belongings were being confiscated, the city eventually apologized for the practice and police stopped accompanying city workers in July. After that, the encampment grew to the point where tents, furniture and other belongings were blocking the sidewalk and doors to residential buildings and businesses.

A row of tents lines the outer edge of a snowy sidewalk on a bleak street. The first tent has a printed notice hanging over the door.
A sign on a tent on Gore Street asks city workers to not take away the tent: ‘This is the only home I have.’ Tent city residents who have been told to move off of Hastings are often ending up on other Downtown Eastside streets. Photo for The Tyee by Jen St. Denis.

The city’s attempt to get people to move off of East Hastings has been hampered by a lack of permanent housing to offer people. While the city now has a total of 1,250 shelter spaces — 350 more than the number available in 2019 — many unhoused people say they’ve had bad experiences in shelters and would rather live in their own tent.

On Oct. 11, The Tyee spoke to a man called Shane who said he had been told to move off of Hastings, but wasn’t offered housing. Workers confiscated his bike and a barbecue, “anything that was outside of the tent.”

“Why are there no supports?” he asked. “They want nothing to do with us — it’s like they’re trying to discard us.”

Shane said he’d repeatedly had belongings stolen while staying in a shelter and didn’t feel safe going to one.

The city says it will continue to remove items from people who have refused to move after repeated warnings.

“Next week, after the snow storm, engineering staff will engage with the individuals at this location and items that have not yet been voluntarily removed will [be] impounded,” city communications staff wrote in an email to The Tyee.

While the total number of shelter spots are higher this year than in 2019, there are fewer emergency weather shelter spots open. In 2019 there were 160 emergency weather spots available, compared to 88 this year.

Fader said the way those emergency spots are funded needs to be revamped, because it’s difficult to find staff at relatively short notice when cold weather comes and the extreme weather beds are funded.

“More spaces are needed immediately,” Fader said, adding there’s also a need for warm places for people to go during the day.

* Story amended on Dec. 5 at 5 p.m. to remove a quote a source said did not fully reflect their position.  [Tyee]

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