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'I have no other place to go': Unhoused on East Hastings begin to pack belongings

Unhoused on Downtown Eastside staying put as city moves to dismantle encampment

Franchesca Leo spent part of her Tuesday loading dirty laundry and other personal belongings into a large plastic garbage container outside her tarp-heavy shelter on East Hastings Street.

City of Vancouver crews delivered the 360-litre bin to Leo in the morning as part of a multi-step plan to remove dozens of makeshift structures and tents from sidewalks along East Hastings.

“It’s been exhausting,” said Leo, a 45-year-old Indigenous woman, as she filled the bin that would eventually be transported to a storage site on either Main or East Cordova streets.

In between loading her bin, Leo filled out a BC Housing application form given to her by a friend but didn’t expect to immediately find a place to live; she planned to move further down East Hastings to another spot on the strip.

“I have no other place to go, but if I can’t stay here, I’ve got to go somewhere,” she said.

Firefighters fear tents could catch fire, spread to buildings

In the past week, BC Housing and Mayor Kennedy Stewart have told Vancouver Is Awesome that there is not enough housing for people living on East Hastings — a fact that is competing with Fire Chief Karen Fry’s order to remove all tents from the sidewalks for fear they could catch fire and spread to buildings.

On Tuesday, firefighters, police officers, city crews and others from various social service agencies were largely in standby mode as Leo and others slowly and methodically began to empty their belongings into the bins.

In the morning, police had closed the section of East Hastings between Main and Columbia streets as media, activists and local residents gathered in front of the vacant Regent Hotel, which is the spot the city focused on because of the concentration of shelters on the sidewalk.

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Capt. Matthew Trudeau of Vancouver Fire Rescue Services on East Hastings Street Tuesday. Photo Mike Howell

Regent hotel vacant since 2018

Capt. Matthew Trudeau, public information officer for Vancouver Fire Rescue Services, said firefighters responded to 1,016 fires in the Downtown Eastside this year, including the Vancouver Street Church across the street from the Regent.

Standing outside the Regent, Trudeau pointed to the vacant building and described the challenges firefighters would have if a fire started in the single-room-occupancy hotel, which the city closed in 2018 because of its dilapidated state.

“Our crews are going to be facing a really difficult time pulling up here seeing fire and smoke that's coming from this building and getting adequate water onto that fire in a reasonable amount of time,” he said, noting firefighters were called this weekend to a tent fire at 122 East Hastings. “This is incredibly dangerous.”

The city did not have anyone present Tuesday on East Hastings Street to answer questions but issued a news release in the morning that emphasized the street and traffic bylaw prohibits structures on sidewalks.

“This is a complex effort and the city appreciates the work of the many community organizations and social enterprises who have been contributing expertise and effort as well as the support of BC Housing and Vancouver Coastal Health,” the release said.

“We recognize that this work will have an emotional impact on the community and everyone involved. City staff will be seeking to conduct the work with thoughtfulness and care of the residents and their circumstances.”

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City crews delivered storage bins Tuesday to unhoused people on East Hastings Street. Photo Mike Howell

City should consider vacant lots to operate encampments

Kelin Ryan, 39, said he lives with a friend in a tent outside the Regent when he can’t get into a shelter, saying “it’s a roll of the dice whether or not you’re going to have somewhere to sleep.”

Ryan, a trained heat and frost insulator, said the city should consider using vacant lots to operate encampments, where bathrooms and cooking facilities would be available, which is something that some U.S. cities offer to unhoused people.

Ryan, who lived in a townhouse last year with friends in Burnaby until the rent got too high, said he collects social assistance but also works at day labour jobs.

“When I do go to day labour, anything that I earn is immediately subtracted off of my income,” he said. “So it's kind of a kick in the pants. Yeah, it helps me be able to eat today. But it gives me no ability to save anything or put anything aside for come the end of the month.”

Asked where he was going to stay Tuesday night, Ryan said: “Honestly, probably nowhere. At this point, I mean I really don't have any other options. So probably just going to stay where I am until they literally seize my belongings, or have provided me somewhere adequate or safe for us to go to.”

City now owns vacant Regent, Balmoral hotels

Ironically, Ryan and Leo live outside a hotel — the Regent — that has been vacant since 2018 after the city forced its closure. The city did the same with the Balmoral Hotel in 2017. Combined, the hotels housed about 300 people.

The city has since purchased the hotels from the Sahota family, with plans to demolish the Balmoral and possibly renovate the Regent, which was closed because of its poor condition.

The Regent and Balmoral have made the city’s top-10 list of problem hotels for almost 20 years and have been cited by police in numerous reports for drug activity, violence and other crimes.

Housing advocates long called for the city to penalize the Sahotas and order proper repairs to keep it from being closed.

At one time, the Regent had more than 1,000 bylaw violations related to fire hazards, plumbing, electrical, structural damage and rodent and pest infestation.

The city's last homeless count in March 2020 recorded more than 2,000 people without a home, with a large population in the Downtown Eastside.

As of 6 p.m. Tuesday, none of the tents outside the Regent had been dismantled, with a spot on the sidewalk earlier cleared by Leo now filled with bikes and other miscellaneous items.

Kelin Ryan lives in a tent with a friend outside the vacant Regent Hotel when he can't get into a shelter. Photo Mike Howell

VPD officers assaulted during arrest

In an incident that appeared to be unrelated to the encampment Tuesday, police were called to the Carnegie Centre on the same block.

A news release from the Vancouver Police Department said several officers were assaulted following the arrest of a man reported to be throwing computers and behaving erratically at the Carnegie.

“As officers were taking him into custody, the man resisted arrest and fought with police,” Const. Tania Visintin, a media relations officer, said in the release. “A large crowd gathered and became hostile and combative with the officers. Several police officers were assaulted. Multiple arrests were made.”

Visintin said officers were in the area at the request of the city to stand by and keep the peace while city crews conducted their information campaign into the tent and structure removal on the strip.

The Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users later posted on Twitter that "constables attacked and violently arrested DTES residents, VANDU and Pivot Legal Society organizers after a day of peaceful observation of the Hastings tent city encampment."

Various video clips posted on social media showed a heavy police presence at Main and Hastings, with officers taking people to the ground and pushing back others in the melee, including a photojournalist.

Sarah Blyth, executive director of the Overdose Prevention Society, which has a drug consumption site located across the street from the Regent, tweeted: "Well that was was working with firefighters and city workers to get the garbage and potential fire hazards under control to reduce risk. The police were not needed or useful and in this situation escalated violence."

Deputy Police Chief Howard Chow responded Tuesday night, writing: "Never easy trying to deal with an emotionally charged and chaotic scene. There to support COV/Fire Chief's order and called in when violence erupted; had officers bit, punched in the face and coffee thrown at them. Rather have officers dealing with priority calls elsewhere #facts matter."