A city-led removal of a homeless encampment in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside continued Wednesday with a decidedly lighter touch as city workers encouraged the voluntary removal of tents and distributed flyers with information on storage options.
The calm came after a day of heightened tensions that culminated with physical violence between police and community members. Officers had been at the site of the Hastings Street decampment in a peacekeeping role, but an unrelated call about a man causing a disturbance nearby led to a brawl between police and the public, with each accusing the other of assault.
As the city cautiously proceeds with clearing the busy corridor, both government officials and those camping along the street agree there is a dire need for housing that simply isn’t being met. Large encampments spring up perennially in Vancouver, growing until they become untenable and are cleared by court or city orders. On this summer’s Hastings Street encampment, city councillors are expressing frustration that the province seems to be nowhere on the file, leaving city staff with little to offer those that they are displacing.
Green Party councillor and Deputy Mayor Adriane Carr said councillors are in constant communication with staff about the game plan but that staff have not said anything about housing options.
“In this case, BC Housing should be there and people from the health ministries should be there,” Ms. Carr said. “I haven’t seen any indication of where people should go. Our people from ACCS [arts, culture and community services] are there helping but we don’t have enough rooms. The bottom line is we do not have enough housing.”
BC Housing and the office of Housing Minister Murray Rankin did not respond to a request for comment. Previously, BC Housing said it can’t do much on such short notice and that it doesn’t have anywhere near the number of rooms needed to get everyone on Hastings Street into some kind of shelter.
Although BC Housing had bought a number of hotels, there have been rooms lost for various reasons. The Winters Hotel was recently destroyed by fire, the Pacific Rooms is empty and for sale, and, prior to the pandemic, the Regent and Balmoral hotels, with more than 300 rooms, were expropriated by the city and then emptied out because the buildings were deemed to be unlivable.
The city said Wednesday that it is working with BC Housing to look at options, “including temporary measures, such as emergency shelters, and longer-term options, such as the expedited creation of more supportive housing.”
Vancouver Fire Rescue Services Chief Karen Fry ordered the clearing of Hastings Street on July 25, saying the tents and structures occupying the sidewalks present “numerous urgent safety concerns.”
On Tuesday, police used their vehicles to close off a block of the street as city workers tried to clear the site. After the unrelated call mid-afternoon, from the Carnegie Community Centre at Main and Hastings, a melee spilled out on to the street. Vancouver Police Deputy Chief Howard Chow said officers were bitten and punched in the face, while members of the public accused officers of knocking down and pepper-spraying bystanders.
There was little police presence in the area on Wednesday. Instead, city workers distributed flyers with information about temporary storage options.
The City of Vancouver said in a statement that this approach was based on community feedback, and that city staff are “encouraging and supporting voluntary removal of tents and belongings.”
Anna Cooper, a staff lawyer with the Pivot Legal Society, said while storage options are needed, they do not justify the decampment.
“Two totes in a storage unit is not a place to live,” she said. “People still need to be in a shelter, and they still need access to their possessions, like everybody else.”
Darron Grant, who has lived on Hastings Street for about three years, said if the street is cleared, it’s unlikely people will go far given that many of the services they use are located there.
“I understand why they’re doing it, but at the same time, they don’t have any actual solution to the problem,” he said. “This will be clear, but people will move to the alleys and stuff like that. They’re just pushing it out.”
Leon Prine stood nearby, selling instant noodles, bags of chips and other miscellaneous items. He said he believes vending should be allowed to continue along the street, but that the tents have to go.
“This is ridiculous. Look at it,” he said, gesturing at the clutter that surrounded him. “People in wheelchairs and walkers can’t make it through here. You see them on the corner looking down, like, ‘How am I going to get through this?’ You don’t see kids come down here anymore.”
A few blocks down, Melody Watts and her son sat amid a pile of belongings. Ms. Watts said, until a couple of years ago, the pair had lived in Prince Rupert, B.C., where she worked two restaurant jobs and spent $850 a month on a two-bedroom apartment. After the death of her brother and a resulting struggle with depression and alcoholism, she and her son moved to Vancouver to start anew. They have called Hastings Street home since January.
Ms. Watts said she would like to get back into proper housing, but there is none to be found in the area. She added that there is some comfort in living among this community.
“It makes me realize it’s not just me, you know?” she said. “I’m not the only one going through this. There are so many people that are homeless, that are going through these types of things. We’re all just kind of wandering, trying to find ourselves, I guess.”
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