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B.C. premier responds to decampment in Downtown Eastside

Premier David Eby says camping on the streets of the Downtown Eastside is a symptom of the larger housing crisis; he said he expects full transparency from police and city crews during the decampment process.
B.C. Premier David Eby said decampments on Hastings Street are necessary to get people into homes, which he assures exist for those presently living on the street.

B.C. Premier David Eby called today a “sad day” but one that is necessary to ultimately move homeless people camping on the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside into safe and permanent housing — after police and city crews removed the tents along Hastings Street.

“Emergency shelters are not a response to the crisis we’re seeing here. I’d say generally this is a very sad situation and a sad day. But ultimately, we are moving towards a place where people are going to get to move into high quality, permanent housing,” Eby told reporters after addressing a major conference on housing hosted by the Union of Municipalities of BC Wednesday at the Sheraton Wall Centre.

On Monday, Eby released preliminary plans to increase housing supply and restrict speculation in his Homes for People program. He said the homeless situation in Vancouver is an indication of the overall housing crisis in the province.

On Wednesday morning, the City of Vancouver and Vancouver Police Department shut down parts of Hastings Street and cleared out tents belonging to an estimated 80 people encamped on the sidewalk.

Eby voiced concern that the process was undertaken without full transparency, according to some media outlets and social assistance organizations.

“My expectation, certainly, is that media have access that they are able to report on and there’s transparency on what’s happening. It’s not a happy day, but it’s important for people who know the depths of the housing crisis we face, why our government is taking the steps that we are to address it,” said Eby.

Vince Tao of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users said police created an "exclusion zone" that prevented the community and "legal observers" from entering it. Police reported that the decampment operation allowed for one television camera crew (Global BC), for pooled coverage. While media were asked to stay out of the exclusion zone, Glacier Media entered it to observe the decampment, including the clearing of garbage, debris and personal items.

Meanwhile, as police initially tried to keep reporters outside the operation area, city traffic cameras at Main and Hastings streets went offline temporarily.

The BC Civil Liberties Association stated, via Twitter, that the city and police “escalating efforts to evict people sheltering in the Downtown Eastside, without offering adequate housing, amounts to cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment.”

Eby assured media Wednesday that the people in the encampment would be provided housing.

Eby cited several safety issues with the camps.

“I am profoundly concerned about the safety of the people living outside. The situation in the encampment was not sustainable; we’ve seen fires, explosions. We had a fire over the weekend where firefighters weren’t able to get to a building as quickly as they wanted to,” said the premier.

He noted a survey of 50 women living in camps, all of whom reported being sexually assaulted.

Eby said the provincial government is opening 110 new units of social housing each month, starting this month and for the next two, for a total of 330.

“We want to break the cycle of people sleeping outside,” he said.

The City of Vancouver stated it had requested support from police to bring the East Hastings encampment to a close "following a steady deterioration in public safety and an increase in fires in the area and the encampment zone."

"Today, city staff, with assistance from members of the VPD, will be working to remove all remaining entrenched tents and structures in the area, approximately 80 in total. The VPD will be present to ensure staff safety as they do their work and enforce the streets and traffic bylaw as necessary," the city said in a statement.

According to the city, at the encampment's height in the summer, there were 180 tents and similar structures. The city has removed 600 since August, staff say. They estimate 85 are still there; some shelters house multiple people.

Eric Olson, 46, watched as city workers dismantled a tent at 142 East Hastings on Wednesday morning. 

“They’re bullies,” he said, adding they knew the action was coming. “What a waste of cops. What did the homeless ever do to cops?”

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With files from Mike Howell and Vancouver Is Awesome