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A person's belongings are placed on the street to be moved to storage after his tent was cleared from the sidewalk at a sprawling homeless encampment on East Hastings Street in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver on Aug. 9, 2022.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

There is no timeline for the complete removal of a homeless tent encampment along the major thoroughfare in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside because the city prefers to take what the mayor says is a more humane approach than other cities when faced with similar problems.

Mayor Kennedy Stewart said at a briefing Wednesday that those living along a five-block stretch of East Hastings are already traumatized. The encampment sprung up last month and is just the latest in a two-decade series of prominent tent camps.

In other cities, police have been called in to clear the camps, prompting confrontations between the tent residents, homeless activists and officers. Several violent skirmishes broke out last year when Toronto police moved in to clear encampments in that city.

Instead, the Vancouver mayor and city officials said the focus is on clearing sidewalks in front of key buildings that firefighters have identified as safety problems and finding housing for those who have nowhere else to live.

In the meantime, the city will pick up garbage, providing storage, food, water, security and washrooms to people still there, while city officials continue to advocate for more temporary and permanent housing.

“The key principle is compassion,” said Mr. Stewart. “These folks that are living rough on the streets are our neighbours, our family members, our sons and daughters. They’re real people. That’s the underlying approach to everything we do.”

The mayor, who is facing an election in October amid criticism from parties to the right that he has let Vancouver become a mess, acknowledged that handling the situation on East Hastings is “not fast enough for some people but it is compassionate.”

He also issued a warning that homelessness in the city is not going to disappear soon because there’s a deficit in affordable housing that has built up over decades. “In order for us to catch up, it’s going to take a long time.”

BC Housing operations vice-president Dale McMann told the briefing that 40 people living on Hastings Street have indicated they are willing to move into apartments that have been found for them and will be housed soon.

Mr. McMann said another 70 spots – 50 self-contained units and 20 shelter spaces – will be available shortly after that.

It’s been difficult to estimate how many truly homeless people are living in tents on the street, as people move in and out daily. Some people are camping even though they have housing because they say shelters or their residential-hotel rooms are unbearable. Some have moved over to CRAB Park, on Vancouver’s central waterfront, as a result of the pressure by the city on East Hastings.

Fire Chief Karen Fry said seven of 10 buildings that firefighters considered to be key buildings at risk have had their entrances and exits cleared. As well, they have removed dozens of propane tanks.

The engineering department is picking up about 2,000 kilograms of garbage a day, and the street is now lined with plastic carts on wheels where people can put their belongings for storage.

A quick drive down the street Wednesday showed there is more open sidewalk space on the five blocks than there was a month ago, when Chief Fry issued an order saying tents, tarps and other structures needed to be removed because they were a fire risk.

As well, tents on a couple of blocks have been moved to the street edge so there is room for people to walk. Previously, many blocks had been completely impassable because the sidewalks were filled with tents, carts, bicycles, propane heaters and other belongings.

City manager Paul Mochrie acknowledged the city was taken somewhat by surprise by the emergence of such a large tent camp on Hastings Street in July.

He said there had always been some people who lived on the street, but they would remove their belongings during the day.

However, starting in July, after police stopped accompanying city crews on cleanups and activist groups accused city workers of throwing out people’s valuable belongings, the number of tents started growing.

“It was a significant increase that happened very quickly and not something we have seen before,” Mr. Mochrie said.

As well, he said, “There was a decreased willingness to remove belongings during the day. That is a new phenomenon.”

Some city staff had to be called back from vacation to deal with the sudden crisis.

Mr. Mochrie said moving people to an empty lot elsewhere, while waiting for new housing to come on stream, is not feasible because it would take an enormous amount of city resources to ensure that it operated safely.

The city is providing money to a group called Mission Possible because there have been reports of violence against women in the blocks where the camp exists.

The area has been tense in the past month. The first day of the cleanup Aug. 10 started with a massive show of police force after officers were called by community centre workers at Main and Hastings to deal with a man throwing computers around and acting erratically.

Activists objected to how police were handling it and a brawl broke out.

A couple of days ago, a man died in the Downtown Eastside after police reportedly shot him with a beanbag gun. He had been reported going in and out of local shops, naked while trying to pour milk on himself after being attacked by bear spray. B.C.’s Independent Investigations Office is investigating the incident.

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