Vancouver city staff and police moved aggressively Wednesday to clear out the last tents occupying the sidewalk along East Hastings Street after nine months of softer efforts to persuade people to leave.
Mayor Ken Sim and city manager Paul Mochrie acknowledged there are not enough shelter spaces or permanent rooms in the city for people who are homeless to move to, but said that the camp needed to be cleared for safety reasons.
“We’re not solving homelessness today. We’re dealing with a serious public-safety issue,” said Mr. Mochrie, conceding that there were likely not 100 shelter spaces available for the remaining people who are homeless on Hastings.
“Some people will continue to have to shelter outside.”
Premier David Eby, whose government released its updated housing plan earlier this week, called it a “very sad situation.”
“Ultimately, we’re moving toward a place where people will be able to get into high-quality permanent housing.”
But the Premier insisted there is enough room in the shelters.
“We have people in the provincial government whose job it is to ensure that there is space available for everyone who wants to come inside from the encampment and that work is ongoing. And they advise me they have enough space. The larger issue, homelessness, is not going to be resolved in this immediate term.”
Mr. Mochrie, along with Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer and Vancouver fire Chief Karen Fry, emphasized repeatedly that having an “entrenched” camp was resulting in increasing violence, more fires, and more dangerous situations and couldn’t be tolerated any longer.
Chief Fry noted that there have been 16 fires on the Hastings Street blocks occupied by tents since the beginning of the year, combustibles piled against buildings, and no sign that the danger level was decreasing.
Engineering crews, supported by roughly 100 police officers, arrived in the neighbourhood Wednesday morning, blocking off a stretch of East Hastings from Main to Abbott streets with rented cube vans and city trucks. Beginning at Main, the workers tossed remaining structures into garbage trucks, including whole tents and miscellaneous belongings.
An uneventful clearing in the morning ramped up by early afternoon, as homeless advocates blocked a line of city trucks as they tried to access Hastings Street, and some holdout tents, from the west.
Police officers formed a line and slowly advanced, met by community members who held protest signs and wore bloodied Canada flags, shaking their heads and crying. Amazing Grace blared from a residential unit above, competing with vulgar chants directed at Vancouver police.
Detritus from the encampment – worldly possessions, putrid waste – was scattered along the street.
The Wednesday sweep was a distinct contrast to the approach the city took to clearing Oppenheimer Park in May, 2020, after 18 months with a large homeless camp there, and then Strathcona Park in April, 2021, after a year of that encampment.
In both cases, the clearance was only done when BC Housing and the city were assured that there was enough housing available to accommodate everyone from the camps willing to accept it.
Vancouver’s usual approach has been seen as a stark contrast to the more aggressive actions taken by cities like Toronto, Seattle or Los Angeles – just three of many cities in the U.S. and Canada grappling with explosions of homelessness in the last two years.
Wade Woodward, who has been homeless in the area for 30 years, packed up his belongings Wednesday. He said wasn’t sure where he would go – probably to the back alley. He was offered a couple of units in single-room occupancy buildings, but he’s lived in them before and would never do so again. He said the bedbugs and cockroaches “eat you alive.”
“I don’t know what they are going to accomplish by doing this; people will be back in a few hours,” Mr. Woodward said. “They’re wasting money that they could be putting into getting us a good place to live.”
The majority of homeless people sleeping outside in Vancouver were not living on Hastings Street. In addition to the homeless camp in Crab Park, which sprang up in the city’s harbour-facing park, many are living quietly in bush areas around the city, in tents along side streets in the Downtown Eastside, under various overpasses and bridges, in parking garages, or in many other parks where they have avoided attention by packing up their tents every morning.
Mr. Mochrie said that the city is not planning anything for Crab Park because there has been a court ruling that the park board cannot evict homeless people from the park if there is no suitable housing for them to go to.