Vancouver’s continuing efforts to remove tents from the Downtown Eastside has drawn criticism from some unions and many of the municipality’s own workers.
Unions representing hospital staff, shelter workers and even employees who began clearing the tents on East Hastings Street on April 5 have condemned the approach of city and police, saying it left displaced residents in an even more desperate situation.
Dozens of frontline workers in the neighbourhood have also signed open letters criticizing city officials, police and Vancouver Coastal Health, which employs and finances many outreach and health services in the neighbourhood.
One signatory, Blake Edwards, said the heavy involvement of police has frayed the already fragile trust between marginalized residents and government service providers, whether or not they were directly involved.
“We attempt engagement in an attempt to build a therapeutic relationship,” said Edwards, an outreach worker in the neighbourhood for roughly a decade. “And this decampment is just an undoing of all this work we’ve put in.”
The Tyee reached out to the Vancouver Police Department and the office of Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim seeking comment for this story and did not hear back by publication time.
The tent city spread along the sidewalk in 2022 shortly after Vancouver police announced they would no longer accompany city staff doing controversial “sweeps,” which advocates say often resulted in staff taking residents’ belongings and shelter. The sweeps were cancelled shortly afterwards.
Fire Chief Karen Fry first ordered the removal of tents in July 2022, saying the camp posed a safety hazard. In a news release, the city also claimed the encampment was linked to an increase in physical violence and sexual assault in the neighbourhood.
The city also said it would help residents find shelter beds.
But Tyson Singh said there was little evidence of any serious plan to house people. On the first day of the sweeps, Singh said, police had barricaded a stretch of the neighbourhood, barring members of the media from entry. Singh was able to get through to assist residents, he said. Within hours, tents had already begun to reappear, he added.
“Tents had already started popping up in the place where I had just helped decamp just a few hours before,” said Singh, an outreach worker in the community. “When you offer people nowhere to go, I don’t know what you expect.”
Several labour organizations have criticized the way the decampment was handled. The BC General Employees’ Union, which represent staff at some shelters in the Downtown Eastside, called the decampment “a violation of human rights.” The Hospital Employees’ Union called it “cruel, unsafe and dehumanizing.” And the BC Federation of Labour, the voice of unionized workers in the province, called the city’s approach “callous and dehumanizing.”
Many city workers who took down tents are represented by CUPE 1004, which represents a range of workers across the public sector. But the union’s provincial office also issued a statement, saying the city’s leadership “does not reflect the values of CUPE BC or CUPE Local 1004.”
“CUPE workers have no capacity to reject this work under current labour laws, and face discipline or termination if they refuse their daily assignment without legal justification,” said a statement from the union. CUPE 1004 acting president Scott McIntosh did not return multiple requests for comment.
Kahlied Salem, a housing co-ordinator with the Kílala Lelum health centre, believes the backlash from labour groups and workers stems largely from the lack of a plan to house residents.
It’s not the first decampment Salem has seen. In 2019, the city began clearing a homeless encampment at Oppenheimer Park. In 2021, workers dismantled a tent city at Strathcona Park. And a smaller tent city still exists in CRAB Park a short walk away. But Salem says this time was different, largely because of the scale of the police presence and the lack of other housing options on offer. On the day of the decampment, he said he saw two dumpster trucks rolling up and down Hastings Street as workers tossed tents inside. Some residents were given bins, he said, to hastily store their belongings.
“With the other decampments, the city kind of said ‘Here’s our plan to go and do this.’ But with this one, it was a like a surprise attack,” Salem said. “It was something you would do if you were in war.”
Kirsten Douglas, a social worker, said the tent city emerged out of a lack of good housing options in the Downtown Eastside, a neighbourhood she said is often misunderstood.
Single-room occupancy units in the neighbourhood, she said, are often infested with pests and are increasingly expensive. Douglas said the tent city’s many problems emerged from that lack of housing, but says the city’s change didn’t offer a solution.
“We saw a lot of peoples’ only shelter being taken down during a downpour,” she said. She said she and many workers in health and social services have a personal connection to the community and have been shaken by the staggering number of toxic drug deaths in recent years.
“It’s becoming impossible not to raise the alarm,” she said.
Many workers in the Downtown Eastside cannot or will not speak on record with media because of policies enforced by their employers, who may be government agencies or indirectly funded by the province or the city.
One worker, who spoke under condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal from their employer, said they worried about the negative health consequences the displacement might have for people who lived in the tents.
“Ultimately, I don’t think you last that long in this kind of work without giving a shit, for real,” the worker said. “It hurts me to see so many people lose everything.”