Documents are shedding new light on the inner workings of a high-profile and controversial plan to dismantle a tent city in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside last spring, including a level of secrecy one advocate says has resulted in broken trust.
It’s been nearly eight months since the City of Vancouver swept through Hastings Street, clearing out tents, packing up people’s belongings and moving them along under healthy and safety marching orders from the fire chief.
Internal documents obtained through freedom-of-information legislation now show the municipality wanted very few people in the loop about when the decampment would begin. One staffer even proposed that key partners — including housing and safe consumption service providers in the neighbourhood — receive no advance notice of its timing at all.
“I feel like a lot of trust has been broken through this, and it’s really disappointing because we’re not doing the best we can for people down here if we’re not working together,” said Sarah Blyth, director of the Overdose Prevention Society.
Hers was among those listed in a March 31 email of partners who would receive no advance notice of the operation that began early on April 5.
“It was confusing for everyone,” Blyth said. “We didn’t have the time to get the information we would need to tell people where they would go to get housing. We could have been a huge help, we would have been a huge help.”
The documents obtained by Global News also show that when crews embarked on the decampment mission, they knew there would not be anywhere near enough shelter beds if everyone displaced requested them. Because most offers of shelter were rejected, however, the city did not run out of space for those impacted.
The documents further show that what the city described as “advocates” were blamed, in part, for a number of people rejecting shelter beds they had initially accepted.
“People have the right to make decisions about what’s best for them and if somebody gives them new information and makes them change their mind, that’s their right,” said Jean Swanson, a member of the Carnegie Housing Project.
“The key issue is that there weren’t enough places available for people to go to.”
While the city broadly stands by its approach to the decampment, in an interview, deputy manager Sandra Singh said there have been some lessons learned. She hopes, however, that a similar decampment is never ordered again.
“I know it was alarming for some folks in the community to see that level of police presence and that it gave the impression of a very chaotic environment,” she told Global News.
“We have talked with community organizations who work in the area. Some of course, were very frustrated with the city and were very open about that … we are contemplating what we would have done differently.”
Concerted effort to keep timing a secret
In the period leading up to the April 5 decampment, secrecy was a real concern for city staff.
A leaked document exposing a two-stage plan to remove people and tents from East Hastings Street was widely circulated by the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users on April 3, but the city knew as early as March 29 there was “some awareness of our planned schedule.”
The partially-redacted documents obtained by Global News include a March 30 email from Singh informing a handful of folks at the B.C. government, BC Housing and Vancouver Coastal Health that as a result of this awareness, police were deciding whether to adjust the timeline for “moving to address the high risk sites.”
Singh asked those partners to keep preparing for the operation nevertheless, reserving and opening as many vacant shelter spaces as possible.
The next day, solid waste management director Jonathan McDermott inquired about plans for notifying people involved in construction on Hastings Street, floating the following options: “no notification, notification on event day, or some advance notification for City vs non-city projects, or a combination of one or all of these?”
Shortly afterward, he circulated an email confirming, “we’ll need to stay the course with same day notification.” He also proposed a schedule of who else would receive notice of the decampment start time and when they would receive it.
BC Emergency Health Services and local health authorities would find out around 8 a.m. — an hour before crews would move in — while mayor and council would find out about 30 minutes in advance, the email stated. Other partners including the Overdose Prevention Society, Atira Women’s Resource Society, the Balmoral Hotel and the inSite safe consumption site, however, would receive no prior notice at all.
On April 2, three days before the operation, Singh sent a follow-up email to McDermott wondering if Vancouver Coastal Health and Providence Health Care would keep the start time a secret from the Onsite detox facility, inSite, and Overdose Prevention Society — funded partners — after it learned of the start time at 8 a.m.
“Perhaps something to be discussed with them on Monday morning when you meet about notifications for whatever day we move forward,” she wrote.
“Either they will need to be instructed to not tell their service sites until we have issued the notification, or we need to delay telling them until 9:00 am.”
On April 5, service providers — unspecified in the documents — told city staff on the streets they were upset and “should have been given more notice.”
Blyth isn’t the only one who takes issue with the secrecy. Anna Cooper, a staff lawyer at the Pivot Legal Society, said human rights don’t need to be kept secret, nor would secrecy be required if dignified housing solutions were available to all.
“You have to keep things secret when you’re doing things in ways that are going to violate people’s human rights and put people at risk because you know that there’s a high chance of pushback,” Cooper said.
“In this case, clearly, the city knew there was a high chance of pushback from even within organizations they would usually consider their own partners.”
In the interview, Singh said that while the decampment order was public knowledge, the discretion around its timing was necessary for “the safety of the folks that were vulnerable in the encampment as well as the staff doing the work.”
Amid rising tension in the encampment, she said concerns included the presence of weapons and how people would react to staff carrying out the work, ordered last July by Vancouver Fire Chief Karen Fry due to “catastrophic” health and safety risks.
“We had started to see aggressive stances to staff enforcing the bylaw by some members of the encampment — not all,” Singh explained. “We had actually identified them as places that we couldn’t even do the daily work anymore in that area.”
Advocates blamed for some bed rejections
As the municipality prepared its plans, staff knew the potential demand for shelter stemming from their actions far exceeded the available bed space. Multiple fires took place daily in the week before the operation and up to 4,350 kilograms of material were being removed each day.
According to a confidential report on the “Hastings De-Structuring,” an average of 13 shelter beds were available in Vancouver each day prior to the clear-out. As of March 28, just 14 housing units were available for immediate occupation.
On April 4, 24 hours before crews moved in, some 81 structures remained on Hastings Street, flagged for removal with an estimated 128 people in need of housing in the area. At 7:15 a.m. on April 5, what Vancouver police described as the “Phase 1 — Pre-Event” period, 44 tents were counted in three key areas of Hastings Street, 36 of which officers thought occupied.
By 6:30 p.m. on April 5, 67 structures were cleared and eight shelter beds had been filled. The city estimated that just 35 people were impacted by the day’s removals.
In the end however, the number of available shelter beds exceeded accepted offers of shelter on April 5 and 6. On April 6, Singh suggested advocates were to blame, in part, for people rejecting the beds — at least on the first day of the decampment.
“Yesterday we had a number of incidents in which people who had accepted shelter and were ready to leave were convinced by an advocate to reject the shelter option,” she wrote at 10:35 a.m. on April 6.
Cooper had questions about that claim, wondering whether advocates informing unhoused folks of their rights — leading to a more informed and perhaps, different choice — was considered by the city as having “undermined someone’s housing offer.”
On Friday, Singh explained that one advocate convinced a person to remain in the encampment rather than pursue the bed they had accepted, but did not elaborate on the specifics of what she described as a “counterproductive” effort that kept someone outdoors, instead of under a roof.
Cooper said it wasn’t fair to characterize “advocates” as being a barrier between the homeless and housing, rather than the lack of housing itself.
In Singh’s April 6 email, she said about a dozen tents were set up overnight on April 5, a number of which were provided by advocates. In her final update on April 6, she repeated that everyone who wanted shelter had received it, with 94 structures having been removed in total over the two days of decampment operations.
In that timeframe, 18 individuals were allocated shelter beds and 97 meal tickets were distributed. Singh said Friday that the city interacted with a total of 56 people in a “careful and measured way.”
“Behind the scenes, our homelessness outreach team worked really hard to ensure that the people, when they were offered shelter, were matched with shelter that met their needs,” she said.
Great lengths to secure shelter
The documents capture that minute-by-minute scramble to secure shelter for those who wanted it, before, during and after the decampment.
More than a dozen people had accepted bed offers between March 21 and April 3 and at least six others had moved into housing. On March 30, nine sites were also said to be holding beds specifically for Hastings and CRAB Park residents through a referral process, until times ranging from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Emails exchanged before 2 p.m. on April 5, however, indicate that only 38 spaces were available across seven sites in the city.
In a group chat between March 30 and April 5, various BC Housing and city employees exchanged a flurry of text messages attempting to book people into beds, put beds on hold, put people on waitlists, and chase down spaces that respected mobility needs, couples, pets, and preferences for male-only, female-only, or co-ed shelters.
Swanson said the effort still demonstrates there weren’t enough places for people to go.
“If one person from Hastings Street gets a shelter spot or housing, that means somebody on Pender Street doesn’t. So the need is for drastically more shelter spaces and drastically affordable housing units,” she said.
“Getting housing, if you’re homeless, is like playing musical chairs.”
If a decampment operation were ever required again, Singh said the city would engage more women’s-serving organizations in advance about the support they could offer, recognizing the particular vulnerability of women in need of shelter. In this particular decampment, she said the city did assign a female community services worker to each crew on the street.
“I think the other thing is, we could have supported proactively in previous months, community-based organizations to do a bit more business continuity planning, so that in the event that there’s a major disruption in a neighbourhood, they are able to pivot their services very quickly to provide continuity of service,” she added.
“So those are a couple of our takeaways.”
Blyth said the city will need to work to rebuild trust with organizations like hers, because “everybody was in shock.”
“We don’t have to agree with what’s going on, but we can at least be there for the people who trust us so that we can show them, you know, where they could have put their stuff, where they could go to look for housing,” she said.
“We didn’t know any of those things. We were not a part of those discussions.”
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A total of 27 people had their belongings impounded on April 5 and 6. Eleven of them never had their items returned to them — a process that requires them to call 311, provide a tote serial number and address for delivery.
While the city normally doesn’t keep impounded belongings for more than 30 days, it has confirmed by email that there’s no timeline in place for disposing of these items. The storage costs roughly $3,000 a month — a tab of over $21,000 to date.
“I think the city needs to reach out to the people whose belongings they have,” added Swanson, “but the problem is the people are probably still homeless and have no place to put the belongings.”
Cooper further criticized the accessibility of the process, given how hard it is for some people to keep track of any of their belongings — let alone a serial number — when they’re being moved along from a shelter bed or tent every single day.
The entire operation, between April 5 and 12, cost the city well over $500,000 — as first reported by The Tyee, and confirmed independently by Global News this week. The Vancouver Police Department has confirmed that it paid out more than $440,000 in overtime alone between April 5 and 16.
Fry, the fire chief, said Friday she is “really happy” about the level of street clearance that has been maintained since then, with a notable reduction in the number of fires on Hastings Street. More than 30 per cent of the city’s fires were taking place on just a few blocks of that street prior to the decampment — including fires that killed people and destroyed critical housing.
Just over 20 per cent of the city’s fires now take place in that area.
“That’s huge for us,” she told Global News. “That puts less risk on the buildings, less risk on the occupants in those tents and to our firefighters as well.”
Two private citizens who had lived on Hastings Street launched a legal challenge of Fry’s order earlier this year. A B.C. Supreme Court decision issued Thursday found that Fry’s order was “reasonable.”
The ruling found the order flouted the duty of procedural fairness, however, which requires a public authority to ensure decisions are made in a fair and open manner, with adequate notice and feedback opportunities that will be considered, when making a decision that affect’s people’s rights and interests.
— with files from Alissa Thibault