For weeks in June, people in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside knew that increasing tensions would boil over between those sleeping on its streets and the city crews whose job it was to get them to pack up and move along so the sidewalks could be cleared and washed.
Police announced July 1 that officers would no longer accompany city sanitation workers on their daily morning rounds. It took only days for about 400 tents to spring up along the six blocks from Dunlevy to Carrall.
The chaos that has ensued in the two months since has sparked a public reckoning and prompted two candidates from both ends of the political spectrum to wonder whether permanent, managed tent encampments should be considered.
In the meantime, it has fallen largely to those with the most experience in the neighbourhood to manage an uneasy compromise. Many tents are still there and the goal of keeping all sidewalks clear hasn’t been reached, but tensions have eased as the city appears to be trying to take a different approach. That approach reflects an understanding that many people have no other place to go.
The tent city shut down sidewalks and forced bus routes to be changed. It provided a startling scene for travellers using Hastings Street, the second-busiest commuter route in the city. People living in buildings along Hastings, who are often not much better off economically than those on the street, were angry that they couldn’t get out their front doors or walk along the sidewalk.
After Fire Chief Karen Fry’s order on July 25 to do whatever it took to reduce fire risk, it was clear Vancouver needed a model different from that deployed in cities such as Toronto, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco or Los Angeles, cities that have managed their tent cities with sometimes aggressive police intervention. That became particularly apparent in Vancouver after a major confrontation between police and activists that at first appeared to be about tent clearance. Later, it was shown that it was sparked by an unrelated incident.
“We wanted to talk about what a new method would look like. That’s the challenge we’re struggling with – how to do it without visible police presence and be effective,” said Lon LaClaire, the city’s head of engineering.
“We talk about bringing order back to the street, but we’re talking about a more sustainable model.”
He had multiple meetings with sanitation crews throughout July as the tent encampment appeared to be spiralling out of control while, at the same time, there was new training for crews on how to handle things in a new way.
Mr. LaClaire acknowledges it was a mess at the beginning and, although things are better now, it’s not perfect, even though he now has crews of about 20 working there every day in shifts and removing 2,500 kilos of garbage daily.
“Our end goal is always to have a clear sidewalk. We want to start the morning with functional sidewalks.”
But with a difference.
Since then, the city, firefighters and community groups, most notably the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), have been trying to collaborate to keep the streets clean.
That strategy is a better approach and one that is unique to Vancouver, Mr. LaClaire says.
The city awarded VANDU a six-month, $320,000 contract to create “an alternative to previous street-cleaning processes” that is aimed at “empowering people who are experiencing homelessness and other DTES residents to keep sidewalks and doorways passable and clean for everyone.”
It’s been a strange and difficult task, says Vince Tao, the main voice for VANDU. Now, the 31-year-old Scarborough, Ont., native, with a history degree from a university in Montreal, finds himself going to weekly Tuesday meetings, with up to 14 city officials at a time, as the sole representative of Downtown Eastside groups. There, he pushes them to do better while he oversees the work for which his organization got the money from the city.
“It was like a devil’s deal,” he acknowledges, “but we took it.”
It was clear to him in late June that the city was not prepared for what was likely to happen when police withdrew July 1, as he went to what became almost-daily emergency meetings.
Mr. Tao said he made it clear to the city that “we would not become the new sweepers.” But it also seemed to him that the city had no other plan besides VANDU.
He acknowledges that VANDU didn’t have anywhere near the capacity it needed to do what was already a difficult job – find, train and mobilize a big new cohort of Downtown Eastside residents to do cleanup while also continuing to fiercely advocate that street sweeps were bad.
VANDU, at that point in late June, only had a paid staff of four and it had to go into overdrive to try to recruit people to organize and do the work they were contracted to do.
The tight network of business, advocacy and social-service groups in the Downtown Eastside and its members have been lobbying the city repeatedly to come up with a better response, not just to the current Hastings Street situation but the continuing issue of tent camps.
They’ve pushed the city hard to get social-enterprise groups involved, especially Mission Possible, an organization that works with Downtown Eastside residents and businesses to remove graffiti and provide private security. Mission Possible has been a key group in providing security for women living in the tent camps, because it can become dangerous for them as camps are inevitably infiltrated by drug-dealing gangs.
“A lot of the tents that were set up were not homeless people,” said Matthew Smedley, the executive director of Mission Possible. “There were a number of dealers. You could see their menu of options available.”
To date, there is some cautious agreement that things are somewhat better, though far from perfect, given how bad everything had gotten.
“I’m surprised it didn’t explode down here before,” said Sarah Blyth, a woman who has been a major force in the Downtown Eastside the past few years as she almost single-handedly forced the city and health authorities into supporting overdose-prevention sites, which she now manages.
She says the situation has improved because it’s the firefighters going around with sanitation workers, trying to work in a more collaborative way to get people to move flammable belongings that are piled up against buildings and persuade them to give up their propane tanks. (Ms. Blyth’s Overdose Prevention Society is also the main group besides VANDU working actively on getting residents mobilized to do their own street cleanups.)
“Everybody loves the firefighters,” she said.
Mr. Tao said most people – bureaucrats, politicians, the media, the general public – don’t seem to understand that the Hastings Street camp is just the most visible symbol of an entire housing system that has completely broken down for the poorest of Vancouver’s citizens. And that the city still seems fixated on sidewalk cleanup at all costs.
He hears Mayor Kennedy Stewart and others talk about it being temporary. Campaigning politicians are using it as a talking point and not the unrolling catastrophe that it is and will continue to be, he says. And very few are talking about the need for a massive system change, he added.
“Until something changes, this reality is not going away for a while,” Mr. Tao said. “People should deal with that, rather than everyone hoping the rain is coming that will wash everything away.”