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'No place to go': Advocates concerned about more DTES decampments, use of force

"What we've been offered so far is inadequate. I feel more safe on the street."

Members of the Hastings street community and their supporters held a press conference Monday to raise concerns after a City of Vancouver document discussing decampment plans was leaked.

The group calls the document — which the city has confirmed is real but won't comment further on — a sign that a compassionate approach to those camping on sidewalks in the Downtown Eastside is coming to an end. The group is concerned force will be used to move people and their tents from the area with no place to go in the coming days.

"There is no shelter available," said Vince Tao of Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU). "They will have no place to go, but they can't stay here."

He called for a moratorium of what he described as "evictions" of people from their homes in tents on the sidewalk.

Members of the community shared their concerns as well.

"I was grateful for sidewalks before this, and now I'm getting kicked off the sidewalk," said Cynthia Fordham.

Stuart Panko says he and his partner have tried being accommodating while getting his "life back together."

"I just want to work with the city, and help them help me get situated," he said. "That's my own personal situation; everybody has their own situation and does their own thing."

However, the accommodation options he's been shown include rat and bug-infested rooms, adding that as someone who's camped plenty, he's not that picky.

"What we've been offered so far is inadequate," he said. "I feel more safe on the street. That's kind of a weird thing to say, but yeah."

However, he's worried about impending decampments.

"When the police come and say, 'You gotta go,' we have nowhere to go," Panko said.

Both noted how they care for their tents.

"It's like my home, it's like my sanctuary. It's like the only place I feel comfortable and I can hide from the public because lots of people stare at us," said Fordham.

"We're trying to work with the city. We keep our place pretty tidy," said Panko.

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.

"Where individuals are required to remove their structures and have indicated that they do not have other housing, they are being offered personal storage options, and access to shelter spaces when available," states the city.

At a different press conference April 3, Mayor Ken Sim noted the decampment plans that started in July of 2022 before he was in office are continuing. He added that a permanent solution to people living on sidewalks may never happen.

"The reality is, we're like every other city in North America. Even if all the stars align, you will have people living on the street," he said. "That's been going on forever. Let's be very clear: what we can't have is a large entrenched encampment in a small area. These things are not safe.”

With files from Mike Howell