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ABC Vancouver's ex-chief of staff asks for forgiveness: 'I made a strong statement'

Kareem Allam told non-profits the Downtown Eastside decampment wouldn't occur unless a housing plan was in place.
Kareem Allam (right) was Mayor Ken Sim’s chief of staff from November 2022 to February 2023.

Mayor Ken Sim’s former chief of staff says he wants to publicly apologize for not fulfilling a commitment he made last fall to a group of non-profit representatives in the Downtown Eastside that council would not support the decampment of East Hastings Street without a housing plan in place.

Kareem Allam said he made that commitment at a meeting hosted by Exchange Inner City at the former Vancouver Police Department precinct at 312 Main St. about a week before the ABC Vancouver-dominated council was sworn in to office Nov. 7, 2022.

“They believed me, they trusted me, and then it turned out to not be true,” Allam told Glacier Media Friday. “So I felt a personal moral obligation to own that comment, and apologize to them.”

Allam was ABC Vancouver’s campaign manager before he accepted the role of Sim’s chief of staff. Allam resigned in early February after explaining it was never his intention to serve in the mayor’s office, citing the workload and responsibilities of the job.

He made it clear Friday that his public apology wasn’t meant as a criticism of the escalated action the city took April 5 to clear homeless people and their tents and structures from the sidewalks on East Hastings Street.

“This is about me owning my comments,” said Allam, who continues to work for Fairview Strategy communications firm. “I just have a belief that in politics if you make a strong statement like that, you don't get to walk away from it. I am asking for forgiveness. I am asking people to accept my apology.”

89 temporary modular housing units

Allam said he wasn’t privy to the information or conversations that occurred with Sim, city manager Paul Mochrie, Police Chief Adam Palmer and Fire Chief Karen Fry that led to dozens of police officers, many firefighters and a convoy of city workers and garbage trucks target the encampment on April 5.

At the same time, he said, he would have asked questions about a housing plan and why the city couldn’t wait until 89 temporary modular housing units were opened on sites at Main and Terminal and adjacent to the Olympic Village Canada Line station.

Premier David Eby had promised the sites would be open in March.

As Glacier Media reported April 14, the site at Main and Terminal is now supposed to open sometime this month and the other one near the Canada Line station in June, according to BC Housing, which cited “unanticipated delays.”

Allam said the meeting in question included most of the ABC councillors and representatives from non-profits and business associations. Exchange Inner City organized the meeting, which Allam recalls occurred in late October, or early November 2022.

“We were asked the direct question, ‘Are you going to just send in 100 cops to decamp Hastings?’ And I just emphatically stated that no, not until the appropriate housing is built,” he said.

Dozens of police officers were present on East Hastings Street April 5 to provide security for city crews and outreach workers tasked with ending the homeless encampment. Photo Mike Howell

'Something had to be done'

Allam acknowledged the public safety concerns raised by the fire chief in July 2022 that caused her to issue an order to clear the sidewalks. He said he was also well aware of the police’s concerns regarding violence and weapons.

“Something had to be done,” he said. “But did it have to be done without the community? Did it have to be done without a bigger heads-up to the province and [Vancouver] Coastal Health? Could they have waited…until those modular housing units were open and ready?”

Added Allam: “Maybe the answer is, ‘No, we can't actually wait any longer.’ So that's why you just can't be critical of the decision, unless you have answers to those questions. And then you just have to balance out all the information that I don't have.”

Michelle Lackie, the executive director of Exchange Inner City, said Friday that she appreciated the apology from Allam and that it speaks to concerns she and others at the meeting had about the new council’s approach to vulnerable people in the Downtown Eastside.

“The message [from Allam and ABC] was that community is most important and community has the knowledge and expertise, and we are going to work with community first, and that's the way we're going to approach things,” Lackie recalled.

“And then it feels like the decampment [on April 5] went exactly opposite of that. It wasn’t turning to community to figure out how to do this best. We all agree that there are safety issues, for sure. It's the process and what actually happened, which goes very against what Kareem represented, what council represented.”

Police officers formed a moving line April 5 on East Hastings Street as sidewalks were cleared of homeless people and tents. Photo Mike Howell

'A lot safer, cleaner'

Sim and city officials were clear during a news conference April 5 about the reasons for an escalation in the decampment, with the mayor repeatedly telling reporters since that action that the situation on East Hastings reached a turning point and was untenable.

“When you look at removing the structures, every person that put up their hand who wanted housing, got housing, or they got shelter space,” Sim said at an unrelated news conference Tuesday in Gastown.

“When you look at the roads, they are a lot safer. We removed over 2,000 propane tanks from those structures, including 100-pounders. I don't know if everyone knows this, but if the safety features fail on one of those 100-pound tanks and they explode, it will take out a whole city block.”

Sim said East Hastings is “a lot safer, cleaner and we are hearing stories of residents for the first time in eight months who can come out of their accommodations on the Downtown Eastside and go visit the doctors and get their prescriptions.”

The number of fires have significantly decreased, too, he said.

“Do we have a lot more work to do? Absolutely,” the mayor said. “Will it take a while? Absolutely. Are we happy with the progress that we've made so far? Absolutely.”

ABC Vancouver has unlocked funds to hire 100 police officers and 100 mental health workers over the next few years to address concerns related to public safety and better respond to people living with a mental illness.

Mayor's office response

Glacier Media contacted ABC councillors Sarah Kirby-Yung and Lisa Dominato Friday for comment on Allam’s apology and was told to contact the mayor’s office.

A written statement provided by the mayor's communications director Taylor Verrall said: "Mr. Allam made these comments on his own volition and did not do so in consultation with elected members. As he is no longer a member of the mayor's office staff, Mr. Allam was not privy to the briefings or updates on the escalating situation in the East Hastings encampment.

"All those who requested shelter over the course of the operation received it and there have been shelter spaces available in the system every night since the operation began.

"As the mayor has stated previously, the efforts in early April were undertaken as an urgent matter of public safety — the daily fires in the encampment posed a significant risk to loss of life and jeopardized much of the community's existing supply of affordable housing."

Allam, meanwhile, said he has observed more homeless people on Granville Street and in Yaletown since the April 5 action to escalate clearing the sidewalks on East Hastings.

“Hastings looks better cosmetically, Chinatown is better but all we’ve done is just move it to another neighbourhood where there are no services, where there are no supports and the police presence hasn't increased,” he said.

Lackie agreed.

“They're just shifting the tents to another place, and that doesn't change safety issues,” she said. “It just changes where those safety issues exist. And that's the problem — and shelters are not adequate, suitable housing.”