Vancouver clears out 'tent city' in East Hastings amid growing public safety concerns

Vancouver's aggressive approach spelled a stark contrast to operations 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.

Vancouver clears out 'tent city' in East Hastings amid growing public safety concerns
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
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Vancouver city staff and police cleared out the remnants of the East Hastings tent city Wednesday after nine months of subpar progress using softer methods.

"We're not solving homelessness today. We're dealing with a serious public-safety issue," said city manager Paul Mochrie.

Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer and Vancouver Fire Chief Karen Fry concurred the "entrenched" camp had contributed to more violent crime, fires, and dangerous situations the public could no longer tolerate after an order last July 25 called for the city to remove the structures, earning support from city crews and police.

City personnel and roughly 100 police officers blocked public access to East Hastings from Main to Abbott streets Wednesday morning as workers tossed whole tents and belongings in garbage trucks.

However, the city faced staunch opposition from frustrated residents and their advocates, who worry where they'll sleep next.

Mochrie acknowledged the city did not have the 100 shelter spaces to accommodate the homeless encampment at the time of the operation. "Some people will continue to have to shelter outside," he said.

"I feel like I'm dispensable," Jody, a homeless person, told Global News in an interview.

Jody lives on disability and uses illicit drugs to numb her chronic pain. Despite the millions spent annually on residents of the Downtown Eastside, she feels ignored.

"We can't get pushed any farther to the docks," she said, teary-eyed.

By the early afternoon, the homeless advocates intensified the situation by preventing city trucks from accessing Hastings Street to clear the remaining tents. Police officers formed a line and slowly advanced against the visibly distressed protestors. 

Vancouver's aggressive approach to East Hastings spelled a stark contrast to operations 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 operations, B.C. Housing and the city confirmed adequate housing to accommodate the tent city occupants. However, the deteriorating situation in East Hastings made that difficult to accomplish in time.

B.C. Premier David Eby addressed the situation Wednesday, calling it "very sad." However, he insisted Vancouver had sufficient room in shelters to house the displaced occupants.

"We have people in the provincial government whose job is to ensure that space is 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, will not be resolved immediately."

"I think homelessness is a big business here," said John Henry as he packed his tent on Thursday. "The activists… hand out gourmet meals in tents."

For decades, taxpayer money has funded services around Hastings and Main Streets for the most vulnerable.

"We are helping a lot of people. Often the people who have gotten out and gotten into market rent, moved, or come back to their communities, their stories don't get told," said B.C. Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon.

As of Friday afternoon, Kahlon confirmed 56 people had moved from East Hastings, while another 20 reside in shelters.

"I don't think that the dollars are being spent properly, and you know, I fear even to say that," said Jody on the desperate need for adequate housing. "Things are getting worse."

The NDP government released its updated housing plan earlier this week, where they pledged "high-quality permanent housing" for vulnerable people.

The Housing Ministry said a new Community Connections Hub in Downtown Eastside would open in two weeks to provide a central hub for people to access referrals and information about housing and services.

Kahlon said they have also received occupancy permits for 95 supportive housing units, with people expected to move in next week.

The province's long-term strategy also includes tracking Downtown Eastside spending and outcomes.

"People think that life on disability, oh look, they don't work. Look at them; they want a handout, they want this, they want that — no, I would do anything to be a productive member of society again," said Jody.

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