A sudden move by Vancouver Fire Rescue Services to clear 150 tents and other structures from three core blocks of the Downtown Eastside has community groups and BC Housing scrambling to figure out ways of finding new shelter for occupants on short notice.
Many housing advocates, as well as the director of a local business association, say the city should have been planning long in advance for what they know happens every summer: people who had been sleeping on friends’ couches or in cars start sleeping outside, as do many who had been staying in Downtown Eastside hotel rooms, which can become unbearably hot in warm weather.
People with makeshift homes on the stretch of Hastings Street affected by the crackdown are being told everything must be gone by next Wednesday, which is a week longer than they were originally given. (The deadline was extended after public criticism.) The fire department has said the structures need to be cleared because there is a risk they will catch fire, or block access to buildings firefighters need to enter.
The city has promised to provide storage space, bathrooms and other services to occupants of the structures, but it is unclear how or when those relief measures will be delivered.
BC Housing said in a statement that it had been taken by surprise by the fire chief’s order.
“We have been clear with the City of Vancouver and Vancouver Fire Rescue Services that, on short notice, we do not have access to large numbers of new spaces in Vancouver to accommodate the timing of the emergency order,” it said.
This is only one of several encampments the municipal government has moved to clear in recent years. Wally Wargolet, executive director of the Gastown Business Improvement Society, said he and others are lobbying for the city to stop handling each encampment as a one-off event and instead create a permanent committee to deal with them. He said what has happened so far is not a workable way to tackle the serious structural issues that lead to homelessness.
“It’s a black mark for the city,” he said.
Advocates say they agree.
“It didn’t need to get this bad. It’s preventable,” said Karen Ward, a Downtown Eastside resident who works as a drug-policy adviser to the city. “They could have created public space. They could have closed a side street to traffic for them. Now everyone is crammed into three blocks of sidewalk and they’re all pushing each other.”
Sarah Blyth, who runs an overdose-prevention site in the heart of the sidewalk encampment, said the same.
“There’s been a kettling of people into one area,” she said.
Ms. Blyth said some of the back alleys where people used to congregate are closed because of construction, while Pigeon Park, a popular gathering spot, is being patrolled by the owner of the building that faces it.
BC Housing has opened 1,400 new social-housing apartments in Vancouver since 2018. The agency has provided 300 housing units – through purchases of hotels like the Patricia on Hastings Street, the Ramada on Pender Street, and the Howard Johnson on Granville Street – for people who had been living in another encampment, at Strathcona Park.
But those additions were followed by the loss of several important residential hotels to fires, and a summer of unexpectedly full shelters.
Rachael Allen, a spokesperson for Union Gospel Mission, said the organization’s shelter has been full every night throughout June and July – something that is not typical for this time of year.
Amanda Burrows, the acting executive director at First United Church, which is located near the encampment, said the urgency should have been expected, given past cycles of surges in homelessness.
“The scrambling that is happening now is the scrambling that happens every time,” she said.
Ms. Burrows added that the current crisis is a result of a months-long series of events.
Vancouver police gave notice in November that, as of July 1, they would no longer be accompanying city crews on “street sweeps,” during which city engineering crews remove what they consider to be garbage.
Advocates started pushing back on the sweeps, saying people’s valued personal belongings were being thrown out. The engineering department apologized and crews stopped that work. Then, tents started multiplying in a spot that seemed safe from immediate enforcement action.
Ms. Ward said that, because of the crowded conditions on the sidewalk on Hastings Street, people are tense.
Vancouver police said in a recent statement that there has been a spike in violence on and near those blocks. A man in a wheelchair was stabbed as he tried to make his way through the tents and debris, a woman was bear sprayed, and another woman was attacked and then seriously injured when she fell and hit her head.
In its own statement, the City of Vancouver said several departments have been involved in encouraging people to remove tents and structures from along Hastings Street. The statement said the city is working on a plan for clearing the area while maintaining safe and clean streets for everyone who lives, visits and works in the area.
Like Ms. Ward, Ms. Burrows said giving people a reasonable option for taking shelter would have been more useful than a sudden crackdown.
“I don’t know why the city can’t find any area for people to move that has a bathroom, a misting station. This is not new.”
In the meantime, she said, it is unfortunate that the fire department decided to issue an order for almost-immediate clearance when community groups had been starting to reduce fire risks on the sidewalks and make them more accessible.
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