On July 25, fire Chief Karen Fry ordered the City of Vancouver to “immediately remove tents and structures along East Hastings Street, due to numerous urgent safety concerns.”
Residents of the Hastings Street tent city in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside have become targets — for municipal candidates driving by while on the campaign trail, for bureaucrats ordering quick-start solutions that fail to overturn decades of displacement, and for police officers who say they are just doing their jobs.
During meetings with the City of Vancouver’s Street Sweeps Working Group, I was told that senior city management was meeting regularly in the weeks leading up to the fire chief’s order to remove the tents on East Hastings.
But based on the days that followed, it’s increasingly clear that no one had a plan.
The city estimates that there are well over 100 tents and structures along Hastings. These tents and structures are people’s homes. Tent cities are also communities — where people self-organize and care for each other, through peer support, harm reduction and mutual aid. For people who reside in inadequate housing, like Vancouver’s SRO stock, tent cities are also a respite. Of course they are no substitute for dignified, accessible housing. The conditions on Hastings are products of civic abandonment, where people shelter in public space due to the absence of safe, viable and permanent housing. In the sheer absence of adequate, accessible and affordable housing, tent cities have become an imperfect solution.
While fire Chief Fry decried the “catastrophic” risks to residents housed in makeshift tents, structures and residential buildings along Hastings, the deadline attached to the fire chief’s order has come and gone — without any intervention from the City of Vancouver.
Chief Fry cited the following concerns after the July 21 inspection:
- Restricted means of egress from various buildings
- Accumulation of combustible materials against buildings
- Restricted access to fire department connections for various buildings
- Unsafe storage and use of propane and other fuel sources
- Open flames and fire hazards
Since the order was issued, there has been no provision of fire-safe sheltering supplies or guidance on fire-safe sheltering in public space, and no viable alternative housing options offered. It’s been nearly three weeks and people have not been given guidance on how to abate any of these conditions, which could endanger life and pose a risk of injury or loss by fire.
Instead, there was a further withdrawal of civic services from the neighbourhood: garbage collection stopped in the Downtown Eastside after the BC Day long weekend, and is only set to resume today, Aug. 9.
Accumulated garbage in the neighbourhood puts people at increased risk of disease. Beyond the continued devastation of the official public health emergencies — the contaminated drug supply and COVID-19 — there have also been shigella and dysentery outbreaks in recent years.
When the city ceased garbage collection, it left residents trying to keep their streets clean with very little infrastructure.
While affordable housing goes down, police funding goes up
We are in the middle of a human rights crisis. It’s my opinion that the city, the Vancouver Police Department, and all levels of government have manufactured the conditions that drive housing precarity.
The lack of safety in the neighbourhood isn’t about criminalized residents — it’s about the colliding crises of settler-colonialism, unaffordable housing, a poisoned drug supply, income insecurity, and the cruel realities of surviving on the street. Daily street sweeps in the neighbourhood, wherein a team of VPD officers and city workers patrol Hastings to “sweep” unhoused people and their belongings off the sidewalks can’t “sanitize” these conditions.
Sweeps also can’t erase the reality that affordable housing stock in Vancouver — and specifically in the Downtown Eastside — has been depleted. A 2018 report by the Carnegie Community Action Project determined that over 800 units of housing were constructed in the DTES that year — at a rate of six unaffordable units for every affordable unit.
Of course, shelter rates for income and disability assistance recipients have stagnated at a paltry $375 per month for individuals. Fire-safe or not, there is simply nowhere for people to go.
The conditions for unhoused residents of Vancouver have gained international attention, including from two former UN special rapporteurs on adequate housing. Special rapporteurs Leilani Farha and Miloon Kothari castigated the housing conditions in Vancouver.
In 2017, Kothari described Vancouver as an “apartheid city,” remarking on the increasing divide between rich and poor. That division has been enabled by the continued displacement of unhoused residents, normalized anti-homeless and anti-drug user discourse (including at public hearings), and the criminalization of people living in poverty.
We are funding the criminalization of homelessness
While affordable housing has been depleted, police budgets have steadily risen. This year, the VPD expenditures budget totals over $372 million. In comparison, the total budget for community services is $43 million.
These dollars aren’t neutral. They reflect the values of the City of Vancouver and the electorate. Beyond the hundreds of millions currently dedicated to the VPD, the force has also chosen to invest resources in initiatives such as the Trespass Prevention Program, designed to target unhoused people based on complaints submitted by landlords or leaseholders.
Instead of investing in the obvious infrastructure — housing — we are funding the criminalization of homelessness. Criminalization has become the predominant narrative in the Downtown Eastside, where police and city workers cite dangerous working conditions. What about the working conditions for peer workers, residents and staff from various agencies stationed in the neighbourhood?
Withdrawal of garbage removal, a core city service, put everyone at risk. No one wants to live, work or play in a neighbourhood that is dangerous — that’s human. But in the same breath, let’s also talk about the dangers of public policy failures, violent police incidents, and anti-poor and anti-drug user stigma. If we want to politicize the conditions in the DTES, let’s do it with an eye to solutions.
Currently, organizations like the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, Coalition of Peers Dismantling the Drug War and the Overdose Prevention Society are on the ground, working with peers to distribute harm reduction gear and build democratic leadership block by block. When garbage collection ceased, they stepped in to fill that role, too.
Here’s what we need
Acts of displacement — whether through fire orders or daily street sweeps — not only jeopardize these community-building initiatives, they jeopardize the health and safety of everyone in the neighbourhood. Clearing unhoused people off the streets without giving them anywhere to go isn’t a long-term solution. Rather, it’s callous and cruel.
We’ve been through this before, including multiple times in the last two years — at Oppenheimer, Strathcona and CRAB parks. And in a few months, people will still have nowhere to shelter 24-7 without fear of displacement.
There is another way. Government could step up with livable, dignified and accessible housing options. The city could create safer sheltering and vending spaces — on vacant lots, repurposed roadways and side streets — where people could set up without increasing fire, life and safety risks.
The city could expand hygiene facilities, including spots that are safe for people of marginalized genders.
Agencies could be provided funds to administer low-barrier permanent storage facilities.
Vancouver Fire Rescue Services could work with residents to develop and adopt a harm reduction approach to fire safety.
We could defund the criminalization of poverty and redirect funds away from enforcement.
These are all possibilities. But we need government and political leaders to stop co-ordinating hostile responses and instead invest in humanity.