A massive city-led push to clear the homeless encampment on East Hastings Street was still underway late Wednesday afternoon as dozens of police officers slowly moved a crowd of protesters up the strip and away from tent-occupied sidewalks.
The operation began in the morning, with the two-block stretch of East Hastings between Main and Carrall streets shut down to traffic to allow city crews to work with outreach workers and police to remove tents and structures.
“Things have reached a turning point in the encampment zone,” said Mayor Ken Sim at a morning news conference from city hall, where he was joined by Fire Chief Karen Fry, Police Chief Adam Palmer and city manager Paul Mochrie.
Every day, the mayor said, city officials are hearing “new and sometimes horrific stories” regarding theft, vandalism and violence against women, many of them Indigenous.
“We've also seen a sharp increase in fires — fires that not only threaten the lives and personal belongings of individuals, but also they pose significant risks to affordable low-barrier rental housing in the community,” said Sim, adding that it was "city staff with my team" who requested support from police to bring the encampment to a close.
City officials said the goal was to end the encampment by end of day, with efforts made to find shelter for the people living on the street.
But how many people required shelter and how many would get it before day's end was unclear, although it was estimated to be approximately 100 people.
'They tell us — go, leave'
Jason Rondeau was packing up his tent outside the Lux Hotel on East Hastings before it could be removed by city crews. He said has lived on the strip for about a year after being evicted from a single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotel.
He wasn’t offered shelter, he said, before pointing to spots along the strip where he had pitched his tent.
“I've been over there and over there and over here, just moving around kind of thing because this isn't the first time they told us to get our shit and move,” Rondeau said. “They just tell us — go, leave.”
Rondeau said he will wait a couple of days before returning to the sidewalk, just like he and others have done after previous sweeps. He said he feels safer on the street than he does in a hotel, which are often in poor condition and unsafe.
“I’ve got my friends on one side and friends on the other side who look out for my stuff, and I look out for their stuff,” he said, as the police line moved closer to his spot on the sidewalk. “It's a great community, and I don't think there's anything wrong with it.”
Reporters heard from Mochrie that since August more than 90 people from the strip had moved into permanent housing, and another 160 accepted referrals to shelters.
In recent months, promises have been made by the provincial government for more housing in the neighbourhood, along with 89 temporary modular homes at Main and Terminal and near the Olympic Village Canada Line station, which are supposed to open this spring.
“We do know that there are individuals sheltering outdoors on Hastings Street who have declined options for SRO units or shelter spaces,” Mochrie said. “We recognize that shelters are not a substitute for permanent housing, but they are warmer and clearly safer than the situations in this encampment.”
1,600 propane tanks
Fry said the conditions related to fire safety have worsened since she issued her order in July 2022, making the strip even more precarious for tenters, residents in buildings and emergency personnel.
Firefighters have removed more than 1,600 propane tanks from the encampment. This year alone, firefighters responded to 16 fires in tents, where four occupants were injured.
Fires have also erupted in single-room-occupancy hotels and at a church along the strip. An explosion that led to a recent fire outside the former Imperial performance space near Main and Hastings was also linked to tents.
In some cases, tents have blocked access to firefighters responding to fires, the latest example occurring last week when a fire erupted on the second floor of a building at Columbia and East Hastings.
“We have had reports of people not being able to escape a building and we have had reports of firefighters not being able to adequately fight and put out a fire in a building,” Fry said.
Added Fry: “Local businesses have been damaged, resulting in fires and numerous explosions which make it dangerous for anybody walking down that street, anybody living in the tents and anybody living in the buildings. They're occurring more regularly and far too often. And it is escalating and it is untenable and unsafe.”
Many assaults in encampment involved a weapon
Palmer said the encampment is fraught with serious crime, violence and dangerous weapons, which have proliferated in the neighbourhood. He said street-level assaults within the encampment increased 27 per cent and nearly half of those were committed by strangers.
“More than two times a day a person is being assaulted in the encampment, and approximately one-third of the assaults or serious assaults involve a weapon,” he said, adding that 19 police officers have been assaulted inside the encampment.
The chief referred to a recent survey conducted by Atira Women's Resource Society that found all 50 women who participated reported being subjected to violence, including sexual assaults within the encampment.
Added Palmer: "The encampment is unsafe. We've had shootings, stabbings, assaults, people shot with crossbows, handguns, multiple stabbings and acts of violence. These facts, along with the extreme fire risk outlined by Chief Karen Fry, has now made this encampment untenable."
Sean Orr, a community activist who ran as a Vote Socialist candidate in last fall's election, said he watched as city crews and police began clearing the encampment Wednesday morning. He said people without homes continue to be pushed from encampment to encampment, while governments continue to promise more housing.
Oppenheimer, Strathcona and now CRAB Park have all transformed into tent cities in recent years, he said, standing on East Hastings Street, before joining people to prevent the police line from advancing up the block.
“Just where are people supposed to go?” he said. “Doing this only furthers the cycle of trauma.”
Eight people accepted shelter
As the afternoon turned to evening Wednesday, the two targeted blocks of East Hastings were all but clear of a few tents, although many people still filled the sidewalks.
Police were also focused on clearing the block along Main Street between East Hastings and East Cordova, where an Indigenous woman living in a tent outside the former police station refused to leave.
Officers eventually left the woman to stay in her tent, where she was comforted by community members. Police were expected to return to East Hastings Thursday to ensure the encampment doesn't get set up again.
The mayor issued a statement late Wednesday saying that eight people on the strip requested shelter and were accommodated.
"Shelter space availability is fluid in nature and we will continue to work with government partners to identify additional capacity and make them available to those sheltering along East Hastings..." Sim said.
At the morning news conference, Sim was asked to be more specific about when the "turning point" occurred on East Hastings.
He replied: "If you're asking me personally, it's been a goal of mine for years to make a meaningful impact on the Downtown Eastside. So the turning point could have been the results of the election on October 15th."
Sim and his ABC Vancouver council candidates won a majority in the election, with a major plank in their campaign to hire 100 police officers and 100 mental health workers. The party was also endorsed by the Vancouver Police Union.
Sim defeated Kennedy Stewart, who took to Twitter Wednesday and wrote: "On October 15, 2022, 85,732 of you voted to elect a new mayor and council who today abandoned our attempts to reconcile with Indigenous people and resume traditional genocidal practices. Welcome to Cruel Vancouver."