The Vancouver Police Department spent $409,536 to deploy dozens of officers over eight days in April 2023 to assist city crews in clearing the East Hastings Street sidewalks of tents, homeless people and their belongings.
The cost was posted Tuesday on the VPD’s website in response to a request made under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. The requestor’s name is redacted in the document.
The eight days in question were from April 5 to 12, a period where dozens of officers mobilized on East Hastings Street, largely focused on the strip between Abbott and Gore streets.
The department has told media many times that officers were deployed to keep the peace while city crews removed tents and structures from the sidewalks. BC Housing representatives and city outreach workers were also on hand to connect people to shelter.
Mayor Ken Sim, who continues to support the strategy to keep East Hastings free of tents, was unavailable for an interview Wednesday, but his office provided an emailed statement regarding the police tab.
The statement included a photo of more than two dozen propane tanks seized from people living on the strip. The presence of the tanks, along with other heat and fire sources in tents, were connected to Fire Chief Karen Fry issuing an order to clear the sidewalks.
'Prioritizing public safety'
“Our commitment to the safety and well-being of our community guided our decision to address encampments in the Downtown Eastside in April 2023, with the advice of the Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services (VFRS),” Sim said.
“The subsequent positive outcomes, including a decrease in propane tank incidents and a reduction in street-level crimes, underscore the importance of prioritizing public safety.”
The mayor noted the city’s collaboration with BC Housing and the Ministry of Housing during the operation, which was a continuation of a lower-scale decampment strategy that began when Fry issued her order in July 2022; Fry’s order is no longer in effect.
“Let me be clear: we offered every person from the Hastings encampment shelter,” he said. “While the policing costs incurred during this initiative were substantial, they were part of our comprehensive approach to ensure the safety and security of all residents.”
Added Sim: “Our dedication to public safety remains unwavering, and we remain committed to exploring innovative and effective solutions to address homelessness challenges in Vancouver.”
148 offered housing, 248 shelter
In a separate email from the city’s communications staff, Glacier Media learned the city only continued tracking people from East Hastings who were offered shelter into July 2023. The statistics show 148 people accepted offers of housing and 248 for shelter.
“The City of Vancouver’s homelessness outreach team continues to offer assistance and support to those sheltering outdoors in neighbourhoods across the city,” the city said in the email.
“The city’s partners also connect with those experiencing homelessness to offer support services and access to shelter spaces as they become available.”
The city, along with its partners, says it is currently offering more capacity for shelter space this year than any year prior. Over the winter, there are two temporary shelters open every night until March 2024, providing 67 spaces.
That’s on top of approximately 190 “emergency weather response” beds.
Meanwhile, city crews and police continue to remove tents and people from the strip, although the efforts appear to be more low-key and don’t require streets being shut down, as was the case in April 2023.
'Bad use of public funds'
OneCity Coun. Christine Boyle said in a text message that spending $409,536 on displacing people from the street clearly means the city needs a larger plan.
“Spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on decamping homeless residents without enough places for them to go, only to do it all again less than a year later, is harmful for those residents and it’s a bad use of public funds,” Boyle said.
She said the medium and long-term answer is affordable and supportive housing.
“This mayor and council need to be working a lot harder toward that goal,” Boyle said. “And in the short term we can’t just keep shuffling people around.”
'All kinds of things could do with money'
Sarah Blyth-Gerszak has had a front-row seat to the displacement as a Downtown Eastside resident and executive director of the Overdose Prevention Society, near Main and East Hastings streets.
Blyth-Gerszak said the $409,536 could have paid for the operation of a shelter for a year.
“There’s all kinds of things you could do with that money,” she said, noting the city’s action in April 2023 has only scattered people into alleys, back to Oppenheimer Park (site of at least two encampments in the past decade) and other neighbourhoods.
That displacement has also led drug users who depended on access to services on East Hastings Street into more vulnerable situations, said Blyth-Gerszak, who spoke to Glacier Media on the same day the BC Coroners Service announced 2,511 peopled died of overdose in the province in 2023.
The Vancouver-Centre North local health area, which includes Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, reported a rate of death more than 12 times greater than the provincial average in 2023, according to the Coroners Service.
The Overdose Prevention Society recently had three memorials for people lost to overdose.
“I mean, we now have a standard memorial kit that we roll out for each person that dies,” she said. “It's really terrible to watch [the crisis continue].”
'An affluent city, country'
Jordan Eng, president of the Vancouver Chinatown Business Improvement Association, wouldn’t comment on whether the $409,536 police tab was money well spent or should have been dedicated to another initiative.
At the same time, he said the previous city council let things deteriorate to such an extent on East Hastings that action had to be taken — not only for the state of the strip, but for the dignity of the people living on the street.
“We’re an affluent city and country, and it's not OK to have people passed out on the street and have the type of predatory action by drug dealers,” Eng said. “But it’s an issue that’s not going to be solved overnight.”
He said money from the city and senior governments aimed at cleaning up and revitalizing Chinatown, along with increased police patrols in the community, has somewhat eased merchants’ concerns over public safety.
“Also, the merchants are a lot more vigilant,” Eng said. “We have a group chat. If there's someone in the neighbourhood causing trouble, it gets around pretty quick and the VPD are on it pretty quick.”
Note: This story has been updated since first posted to correct that the $409,536 was spent over eight days, not seven as originally reported.