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Vancouver arson attack on woman increases concern for safety of unhoused

The same day a man went on a killing spree in Langley, there were two arson attacks in Vancouver's DTES, sparking concern for people experiencing homelessness.
Residents in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

A Vancouver woman was set on fire in the city’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) this past Monday, July 25, as more concerns grow for the safety of residents in the area. 

At approximately 1:30 a.m., the victim was sitting on the west side of Dunlevy near Powell. She was approached by a stranger who dumped a flammable substance on her head and lit her on fire. 

The woman, who was taken to the hospital and treated for her burns, managed to run into a nearby business to get aid. 

“She is a vulnerable member of the community, she is unhoused. Such a violent act happening, that in itself, of course, is very concerning,” said Const. Tania Visintin with the Vancouver Police Department (VPD). 

The attack happened the same day a lone gunman shot and killed two people and injured two others in Langley. The shooter, 28-year-old Jordan Daniel Goggin, was shot and killed by police.

Initial statements by Lower Mainland RCMP indicated that the shooter was directly targeting individuals experiencing homelessness, but have since walked back on their statement stating the need for further investigation. 

VPD echoed this, saying that the motive in the recent arson attack is unclear. 

“This is still quite fresh, and we are still gathering all the evidence so we can't make a connection. And we don't know what the motive is,” Visintin said. “So on its own, it's obviously very concerning and something that we're definitely digging into deeper.” 

The attacks are felt throughout the community 

Despite authorities indicating that there may not be a clear and connected motive in the attacks, residents in the region are still feeling concerned about the safety of those who are unhoused as this is not the first arson attack seen in the area. 

According to Rachael Allen with the Union Gospel Mission, another woman was set on fire when she was sleeping outside in January of 2021.

“I think not only these incidents, but also the shootings … just really can make people feel in the community like maybe they might be next and it's hard to imagine someone that is in their similar situation who's experiencing homelessness, could be the victim of such violent attacks,” Allen said. 

Just because someone doesn’t have a fixed address doesn't mean they don’t matter, she says.

Vancouver city councillor Jean Swanson said that the moment she heard about the woman in Vancouver, she thought about the attack in Langley. 

“I was really afraid this would happen when I heard about murders in Langley; that we'd start having kind of copycat stuff happening,” Swanson said. 

Following the Monday attack on the Vancouver woman, a separate incident was reported. In that case, an unhoused man’s homemade structure was set on fire while he was sleeping.  

The incident occurred on the south lane of Columbia Street near West 5th Avenue between 12:30 and 1:30 a.m. The individual did not incur any injuries and was able to put the fire out. 

VPD says that they don’t believe the two incidents are connected but are not ruling anything out. 

“I think that this just goes to show that individuals in our community who are more marginalized, who are experiencing homelessness, that they've often been the targets of stigma and judgment and hatred, and now even extreme violence,” Allen said. 

New VFRS order will displace those on East Hastings

For residents of the DTES, the issues are compounding. Due to an order from Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services (VFRS), tents and structures along East Hastings Street will be removed starting at 5 p.m. today (July 27). 

Chief Karen Fry issued the order citing numerous urgent safety concerns. 

“Should a fire occur in the area in its current condition, it would be catastrophic, putting lives at risk and jeopardizing hundreds of units of much-needed housing,” according to a City of Vancouver news release. 

Advocates are saying that this order leaves no alternative for the individuals who will be displaced. 

“I think there is probably a fire danger with the tents all so close to each other and touching. So I think that has to be dealt with, but there has to be a place for people to be legitimate,” Swanson said. 

According to Swanson, there needs to be an alternative put in place such as a parking lot or designated area for unhoused individuals in addition to more bathrooms, fire extinguishers, or picnic tables for people to gather. 

Meenakshi Mannoe, criminalization and policing campaigner with Pivot Legal Society, pointed to the irony of the order being put into effect the same week as a heat wave. 

"Of course, fire safety is a very real issue, but there seems to be no capacity for multiple levels of government to cooperate and address the intersecting safety issue," she said. "We need emergency weather response and even though we saw the fatal impact of a heat dome last summer, BC Housing has no emergency heat-related shelters available."

"They [the unhoused] feel abandoned by all levels of government."

The City of Vancouver says it will work alongside the community, non-profit organizations and partner government organizations to find support for those sheltering outdoors. 

"Supports will include day storage of personal belongings, and increasing public washrooms, misting stations, handwashing stations, and water fountains in the area," the city said in a statement. 

Mannoe says that the practice of street sweeps, which halted on July 1, did not reveal the problem but only emphasized an underlining issue. Streets sweeps are when city workers and police officers "sweep" the sidewalk to ensure they are cleared. Historically, street sweeps would remove any homemade structures in the area.

"We see shooters targeting people who experience homelessness, we hear about people who are being targeted by being lit on fire, and we also see people targeted through fire orders and public policy decisions that give them no options for survival," Mannoe said.