DTES residents, advocates say ‘street sweeps’ targeting city’s homeless

A city worker removes a tent from the sidewalk in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Pivot Legal Society

Advocates and people living on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside are calling for the “immediate end” to daily so-called “street sweeps” of the area they say are having disproportionate impact on the area’s homeless.

City of Vancouver crews in partnership with police conduct regular sweeps through the area, gathering items on the sidewalk and hauling it away in garbage trucks.

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But advocates said Friday that the crews often take “irreplaceable personal belongings,” along with survival items including tents, sleeping bags, clothing, medication and ID.

“(They) are targeting people who rely on public space on a daily basis,” Meenakshi Mannoe with the Pivot Legal Society said, calling the impact of the sweeps “devastating.”

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Pivot and partners interviewed 100 people within a two block radius of Hastings and Columbia streets, who alleged street-sweeping crews had taken items including Indigenous art and even the ashes of deceased loved ones.

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“One lady told me they threw her mother’s ashes away, her brother’s ashes and her uncle’s ashes. When she told them that’s what they were, they said that’s probably drugs and threw them into the garbage dump,” Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users president Lorna Bird said.

“Another lady, there was a picture of her baby and her footprints and fingerprints. They smashed it in front of her and threw it into the truck.”

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One area resident, who gave her name as Robyn, said she’d lost all of her belongings to street sweeps three times, and that crews appeared to show little regard for her possessions.

“They sit and wait for your absence, and they don’t care if somebody is there watching,” she said.

“My boyfriend and I have had our tent sliced up, and they used it as an excuse to say they were checking inside to see if there were overdoses taking place.”

In a statement, the City of Vancouver said crews have been trained only to remove abandoned items, not “items that are clearly Personal belongings.”

“We sincerely regret that personal belongings may have at times been mistakenly mixed in with the considerable amount of debris cleared from sidewalks each day.”

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Crews are also trained to connect people with services, de-escalation and Indigenous relations and cultural safety, it said.

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